When you call a movie " Robin Hood,” you set up expectations: a gallant archer, a maid named Marion, a band of Merry Men, a crusading king and a certain camaraderie in Sherwood Forest. The latest version has those elements, but they don’t play out in a way that’s easy to recognize or respond to, and that’s a problem.
It’s an especially frustrating problem because the key creative people involved in the film are among the best in the business and their work here is for the most part solid. Director Ridley Scott is a contemporary master of wide screen action entertainment, Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland is coming off a strong showing in “Green Zone” and costars Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Australians a long way from home, clearly enjoy each other’s company. So what could be wrong?
The difficulty is that this “Robin Hood” has been misconceived twice over. The first misstep, albeit a defensible one, was the decision to make this an origins story, a kind of “Robin Before the Hood.” While there is no lack of action and intrigue here, those expecting traditional Robin Hood satisfactions will be left wondering if it’d be asking too much to have the guys kicking back in Sherwood the way we remember them.
Still, origins stories are all the rage these days and with a property like the Robin Hood legends, filmed literally dozens of times with actors such as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner in the title role, doing things differently (as Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn did in “Robin and Marian”) is a justifiable way to go.
What is harder to forgive is the cumbersome, too-complicated story credited to Helgeland (who shares story credit with the “Kung Fu Panda” team of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris). Simultaneously simplistic and over-plotted, revisionist and predictable, this “Robin Hood” has trouble getting untracked and, once it does, proves an awkward mix of international geopolitics, repressed memory, old-fashioned villainy, human rights advocacy, the Magna Carta and pigeons that send secret messages.
Though most modern retellings of the legend place Robin in Sherwood circa 1185, around the time Richard the Lionheart leaves for the Crusades, this “Robin” starts more than a decade later with the man in a different place. The future Hood is introduced in 1199 as one Robin Longstride (Crowe), a world-class archer in the service not of a noble monarch but a dispirited wreck of a King Richard (Danny Huston), a ruler who’s put away a few too many brewskis and is fighting through France on his way home from the Holy Land.
Circumstances free Robin and his pals Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) from the king’s service and put them in the possession of the sword of a recently murdered friend of the king’s, Sir Robert Loxley. The sword has an intriguing inscription on it and Robin feels honor-bound to deliver it to Sir Robert’s father.
That would be the ancient and blind Sir Walter Loxley (the venerable Max Von Sydow), who lives in Nottingham with Sir Robert’s feisty widow Marion (Blanchett). Circumstances throw everyone together (circumstances will do that in a movie like this) and after Robin asks Marion to chivalrously help him remove his chain mail there is little doubt where things will end up.
While all this is going on, all kinds of political shenanigans are taking place in London, where villainous, goateed Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is irking his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine ( Eileen Atkins) by spending his valuable royal time in bed with “a bit of French pastry” otherwise known as Isabella of Angouleme (Lea Seydoux).
When he isn’t playing house, John is plotting to take over the country with the help of Sir Godfrey (bad-guy-du-jour Mark Strong), a man so perfidious he speaks English and French. Behind John’s back, Godfrey turns out to be scheming with the French king and closing in on Nottingham and the stalwart Sir William Marshall ( William Hurt, of all people) is spending his time palavering with a group of VIBs (Very Important Barons). It’s enough to make you dizzy, and not in a good way.
Still, there are some things to savor. Blanchett is an actress who’s always involving, and Crowe is very much in his element as an intrepid, laconic archer who lets his arrows do the talking. He apparently spent untold months learning to shoot like someone raised in the Hood, firing as many as 200 arrows a day in a relentless quest for accuracy.
It’s also true that director Scott’s facility with the spectacle of battle makes everything he does worth investigating, though this film finally lacks the clarity of his best work and misses the joy of the Robin Hoods that captivated previous generations. As it lumbers its way toward the finish line, it’s hard not to wish that “Robin Hood’s” plot was as nailed down as all those on-target arrows.
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