The second of the blockbusters arrives, celebrating the true arrival of summer. Chosen to open Cannes and featuring a return of the powerhouse pairing of maestro Ridley Scott and love-’im-or-hate-’im matinee icon Russell Crowe in a historic setting brimming with action potential and historic appeal, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of pressure on the iconic outlaw, Robin Hood. So does he carry it off as confidently as he carries off that bow-and-arrow?
It’s worth beginning with the observation that this is an origin story. It may as well be titled “Robin Hood: The Wonder Years”. Without spoiling anything, I couldn’t help observing that a large number of the dramatic beats from the trailer occur after the movie’s climax – anyone buying a ticket expecting robbery of the rich for the sake of the poor will be disappointed. Despite the story’s strong social commentary, there’s relatively little wealth redistributed – save a token gesture.
I wonder as to Scott’s mindset in framing the story as such. There have been quite a few ‘reimaginings’ of the script (‘reconceptualising’, if you will). The movie has evolved from a revisionist history of the Sheriff of Nottingham to a movie where Crowe was to play both Robin and the Sheriff to a movie which barely features the Sheriff at all. There’s the suggestion that the film has been through many iterations – perhaps fitting given the evolution of the tale upon which it is based – some of them even during filming.
To be fair, some of the movie works really well. Scott clearly imagines the tale of Robin of the Hood as one particularly relevant today. A kingdom in massive debt, taxing its citizens to the hilt to pay for the folly; an unpopular, on-going war driven by the ideology of a high-on-style low-on-substance leader; children run feral, inspiring terror in those unprotected individuals (the old, the abandoned); “forgotten men” struggling with disenfranchisement from those who rule. The story certainly feels timely, and it’s reassuring to know that old myths like that still have power. Of course there’s a healthy dose of pro-Anglo sentiment there (“An Englishman’s home is his castle,” Robin speechifies at one point to rapturous applause as the movie suggests that England somehow beat France to the bunch with the whole “human rights” schtick), but the movie isn’t ashamed to take the core notions of the original myth and run with them – perhaps it’s a shame that those themes of class struggle were the only elements faithfully transitioned to this adaptation.
Unfortunately not all of the elements tie together as well. There’s a plot thread occupied with the goings on in the royal household, and a war brewing with France even as the country is “at war with itself”. Though this provides some stomping action sequences (notably at the climax), it doesn’t gel particularly well the rest of the story. It feels like an element shoe-horned into a Robin Hood movie. It’s hard to balance Robin’s personal journey with this, and it is more than a bit awkward.
The movie that this film will inevitably see itself compared against is Gladiator, a similar historic epic from Scott featuring Crowe as a man seeking to humble a god-anointed ruler. However, the film is distinct in its contrasts. While Gladiator cleverly (and heavily) simplicised the politics of the Roman Empire for an ultimately more effective story, Robin Hood heavily complicates itself with needless politicking and tangential wrangling. However, it also shrewdly reverses the journey of our lead. In Gladiator, Maximus found himself a somebody who became a nobody and reinvented himself (“the general who became a slave…” and – well, you know the rest). Here Robin begins as a nobody, a random soldier in a huge army, and finds himself becoming a somebody, a role he finds himself growing into.
However, the film does have an ace up its sleeve in Ridley Scott. He’s one of the most high-profile working directors for a reason, and he reminds the audience of that regularly as he peppers with movie with well-staged action sequences (including an early siege of a French castle which is just fantastically staged and a later setpiece which seems to have been included purely so Scott can stage his own medieval version of the iconic opening from Saving Private Ryan). Unfortunately these action sequences are fairly unevenly distributed through the film – the two best moments are situated as bookends to the movie – rather than the constant stream of action and intrigue which made Gladiator compelling matinee viewing. This wouldn’t be an issue were the core of the movie able to offer a consistent and interesting tone to bridge the divide, but it can’t seem to settle on whether it wants to be a grandiose war epic or the story of man becoming the legend we know he must be.
Russell Crowe is, whatever your opinion may have to be of him personally, a great actor and he is able to humanise Robin. That said, there isn’t too much special going on during Robin’s journey from cynical soldier to passionate revolutionary, but Crowe has a charisma about him that masks the familiarity and conventional nature of his character’s arc. Cate Blanchet is amazing, as ever, as Maid Marion. Of course, this would be a revisionist history if it didn’t let Marion get in on the action as some sort of “girl power” prototype, which admittedly feels just a tad cliché. We’ve gotten to the stage where even the slightly skewed takes on these old-fashioned stories are becoming old hat. Still, Crowe and Blanchet headline a superb cast, which represent the best feature of the movie.
Perhaps it was too much to expect a movie of the caliber of Gladiator – a film that isn’t without its own shortcomings, to be frank. Gladiator has had a decade to ingrain itself on the public consciousness as the highest quality swords-and-sandals epic in recent memory. It’s also perhaps a little unfair to discuss that film so much in a review of a current blockbuster, but I think there’s a case to be made – it’s a comparison the film openly invites through its advertising and one that is undoubtedly in the front of most viewers’ minds. However, even without dwelling on the earlier film, Robin Hood isn’t consistent enough to stand as a superb blockbuster providing the requisite thrills.
On the other hand, it does benefit from two superb leading performances and a confident director who is still on top of his game. When the movie works, it comes together well – the action sequences are well-staged and Crowe can find the humanity in the character. Unfortunately, despite promising to take us into the uncharted youth of the famous bandit, it ultimately gets quite a bit lost.
I would like to thank Simply Zesty for inviting me to a preview screening of the film – complete with some wonderful coverage of Cannes. It was really great and very well organised (there was a red carpet and everything!). Much appreciated guys, and thanks again.