By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Ridley Scott
STARS Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett
Disregard the folk tales, the ballads and the previous screen versions. Ridley Scott's prequel Robin Hood purports to take us behind the legend, offering a fanciful look at the people, places and events that shaped the outlaw archer before he made a name for himself crossing swords with Sir Guy of Gisbourne, foiling the Sheriff of Nottingham, defying King John and, of course, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But really, were that many people clamoring to see what's basically X-Men Origins: Robin Hood?
About as useful as Hannibal Rising and the now-forgotten Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (and, while we're at it, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd), Robin Hood gives us not the maverick Ridley Scott who directed such unique gems as Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise but the self-important Ridley Scott who helmed such lumbering duds as 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Kingdom of Heaven. Scott suddenly seems intent on stripping movies of their mythmaking, preferring to ground them in some semblance of what passes for "realism" on celluloid these days. You know what I mean: Grainy battle sequences, troubling family issues (as in Iron Man 2, our hero believes his father didn't love him), wholesale use of CGI to paradoxically convey verisimilitude, and the habit of allowing every noble character to speak and act in a PC manner more suitable for the next Democratic National Convention than the medieval ages.
The definitive screen Robin will forever remain Errol Flynn, whose 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood merely ranks among the two or three greatest action-adventure films ever made. Yet even the miscast Kevin Costner (in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) was more fun to watch than Russell Crowe, who gives a technically sound performance that nevertheless is too one-note to stir audiences in the tradition of the best movie heroes. The same fate befalls Cate Blanchett, whose humorless Marion is a far cry from Olivia de Havilland's comparably headstrong but more engaging Marion opposite Flynn's Robin. As for the Merry Men, scripter Brian Helgeland makes a major miscalculation in relegating them to the sidelines at frequent intervals. As seen here, Little John (Kevin Durand), Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) are so thinly fleshed out that they might as well be Huey, Dewey and Louie.
Too many royal-court scenes involving the tensions between England and France only serve to drive the focus of the picture away from its central player even more, and whenever Scott and Helgeland do get around to showing him in action, it's usually in a chaotic battle sequence offering little genuine excitement. The climactic beachfront battle is especially ill-conceived, staged by Scott as if he were recreating the Normandy Invasion opener from Saving Private Ryan.
The film wraps up exactly where one hopes it would have begun. That's a bummer, but there is an upside: Robin Hood 2 (provided there is one) is almost guaranteed to be that rare sequel that improves on the original.