It’s hard to believe that Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have been going steady for than a decade, and if this movie is any sign, the relationship might be going a bit stale.
In this version of the Robin Hood mythos, the titular hero is the direct descendent of a Roman general turned gladiator. Okay, the movie never explicitly says there is any blood relationship between Maximus and Robin Longstride, but their shared cinematic DNA is there for all to see.
Longstride is an archer in the army of King Richard (Danny Huston) who, on his way back from the Crusades, decides to conquer France just for shits and giggles. In this telling of the legend, Richard is far from the lion-hearted absent father of the English people, but actually kind of a dick. When he asks his archer Longstride for his opinion of the war, Maximus, I mean, Robin answers him honestly and the king, being a dick, has Robin and his friends put in stocks for their trouble. Then Richard goes and dickishly gets himself killed.
Robin and his comrades, Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) take advantage of the royal dick’s lack of a heartbeat and escape back toward England. On the way, they stumble into a French ambush of the royal guard that happens to be transporting Richard’s crown back home. They are in time only to chase off the attackers and prevent the crown from being stolen, but not to actually save anyone. One of the knights, Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), asks Robin before he dies to return his sword to his family home in Nottingham. Robin takes the sword and, along with his men, helps himself the dead men’s armor and horses and, in England’s first recorded case of identity theft, they impersonate the dead knights to gain passage back home.
They return to England and have to keep up the guise of the knights long enough to deliver the crown to Prince John who, in another twist on the story, is somewhat less of a dick than his brother. He’s more of a playboy who’d rather shag than govern.
When Robin gets to Nottingham, he finds Loxley’s blind father, Walter (Max von Sydow), and his widow, Marion (Cate Blanchette). The old man wants Robin to keep impersonating his son because apparently having no living heir could allow the crown to seize his land. Neither Robin nor the former Mrs. Loxley are really keen on the idea at first.
Meanwhile, newly crowned King John proves that he’s still enough of a dick to be king by imposing heavy taxes on the people to pay for all of his dead brother’s dicking around in the Holy Land. He gives the job of enforcing the taxes to Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). Bad idea, since Godfrey is colluding with the French king and plans to use his power to sow discord in England and pave the way for an invasion.
This film does feel like Gladiator warmed over, but its problems run deeper than that. While its liberties with the usual elements of the Robin Hood story are forgivable, mostly because the legend itself is probably bullshit anyway, they don’t add up to a compelling narrative. Scott tries to give Robin Hood extra weight by putting him in the center of events that would lead to the signing of the Magna Carta, but Robin Hood doesn’t really need that kind of gravitas to make a good story. What it does need are more vivid characters. We spend so much time on the political machinations that the usual Sherwood Forest suspects like Little John and Will Scarlett are pushed into the back ground.
To be fair, the relationship between Walter, Marion and Robin does come alive when other parts of the story do not. Cate Blanchett is, as always, up to the task of making Marion interesting and believable even when the script does not.
What is on screen is handsome enough to look at, and no one stages medieval combat like Ridley Scott (even if he does give France credit for inventing the modern landing craft about 750 years too early). The filmmaker throws some interesting ingredients into the stew but unfortunately forgot to include enough meat.