After the disappointment that was Iron Man 2, it was time to come face to face with another possible blunder of studio spending. Sure the original concept might have been great, but what ended up coming out isn’t quite as original as one might have hoped. Can Ridley Scott pull off yet another triumphant epic, or does Robin Hood deserve to be forgotten?
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood film had what some would likely consider a development cycle from hell. Originally titled Nottingham, it was going to be a revisionist take on the legendary character, placing the hitherto described villain in the sympathetic lead role. Then it was revealed that the already attached star, Russell Crowe, would, in fact, be playing both the part of the sheriff and the titular archer, and that the movie was still to paint everything with a very original brush. However, such storytelling designs were ditched in the planning stages, and the end of pre-production brought with it a wholly unoriginal title, and the discovery that Crowe, who had begun as the sheriff originally, would now be playing what I could only assume was a past-his-prime version of Robin himself.
Basically, as someone who enjoys following projects through all of their variations, I was instantly underwhelmed. How could they go from something that sounded so fun to a retread of the same story we all know by heart already? Not to mention that I adore Scott’s Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven and know that the guy must have a few more wonderful epics in him. But in any event, we were off to the races, and now that the film has descended upon Cannes, you’re probably wondering how it holds up.
The first thing you should know is that the film is a prequel. Say what? You heard me correctly. The final frames are clearly meant as a lead in for the legendary story you’ve heard a million times, and as such, we know several things very early on. 1) There is absolutely no chance that Robin Hood, or any of his merry men, will die in this film. 2) King John, as much of a jerk as he is, will also not see a worthy response to his tyrannical reign. 3) Everything you love about the legend of Robin Hood isn’t going to happen here. No splitting of arrows, hiding out in the woodlands, and definitely nothing that would get a man a reputation as an outlaw. By now you’re probably looking at the grade going, “Well then what the hell was there left that was worth watching?” That’s where it gets tricky.
You see, in an effort to be both epic and historically accurate, the screenplay basically became two completely different types of movies jammed rather unceremoniously together. On the one hand, you have the story of our title character. We follow him from his days fighting in King Richard’s army at the end of the crusades, and his twisted path back to the realm. This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the film, partially because of how much further it goes with the origin story, including a whole subplot about how the man we know isn’t originally Robin of Locksley at all. Once he gets back to England, however, all the momentum completely stalls out, and we never really buy the lead-in to the very tacked on third act battle. It’s great to see the story behind the legend, as long as the guy actually becomes the legend at some point. We don’t enjoy watching movies about James Bond, Ethan Hunt, or Maximus for that matter, because of their boring down and dirty lives. We like heightened realities, and in an effort to be historically accurate, they took the cinematic qualities out of the story itself. Yes he’s a good archer, but we never really see him embrace any sort of destiny, and it’s not a whole lot of fun to watch a man with no plans attempt to act on the spur of the moment for 2+ hours.
Then you have the other side, an historical epic set in the halls of power. Richard’s death gives John the thrown, and the political repercussions of inheriting a bankrupt kingdom with a mistress from France for a queen and a potential civil war on the horizon makes for some pretty powerful storytelling. William Hurt and Mark Strong are both the highlights here, playing the General of the Army and the treacherous friend of the new king respectively. The King himself, the youngest of the children, is an interesting case of pompous indifference and a strong sense of action when called upon. He doesn’t know that Phillip is plotting to undermine his rule and takeover Britain, and the final battle only makes sense in the context of John’s struggle, not Robin’s. That doesn’t mean the epic scale doesn’t work, or that the story isn’t told wonderfully. It’s more that they’re two different types of narratives, and cutting between them feels like channel surfing two great movies on different premium channels.
The Robin/Marian arc is one of my favorite parts of the film, despite both actors being 5-10 years too old for their parts. I do love the casting, had the film been produced directly after Gladiator. People in that time period only lived to be about 60 at the max anyway, so Crowe is basically a senior citizen at this point. It still works, but my mind spent most of the time wishing for what could have been. The same thing goes for the big battle sequences. Ridley Scott is a master of large-scale battles, and here it just felt like he was resting on his laurels a little bit too much. Everything is executed very beautifully, and there is a polish over the whole production that demonstrates what kind of movie this could have been if given a better script. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a prequel to the type of Robin Hood movie we’ve always wanted to see, and as Scott is notoriously unlikely to produce sequels to his own films, we will probably never end up seeing it. The biggest detriment to this particular film can be described as the equivalent of cinematic blue, and I can only shake my head and hope that this isn’t the last time we see artists of this caliber try to bring the legend to life.
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