I'm not exactly sure on what grounds I plan to stand up for Ridley Scott's Robin Hood (Universal Pictures). Nowhere near as terrible as it could have been? Reasonably successful given the grievous miscasting at its core? Let's go with: pretty much ill-conceived from the ground up but saved by a couple of strong performances and a wealth of well-researched period detail. Not the most elegant defense, but like the movie, it'll do.
The legend of the forest-dwelling thief and his merry band has been committed to film scores of times, most definitively in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), one of those magical movies in which everything—the casting of then-newcomer Errol Flynn, the crisp vividness of early Technicolor, the jaunty score by Erich Korngold—somehow coalesced into a perfect artifact. Seventy-two years later, the Errol Flynn Robin Hood is still the version to beat, and its shadow—or rather, its lack of shadow, for never has a movie been sunnier—looms over any cinematic return to Sherwood Forest. Scott's remake is unremittingly dour in the modern style: That's how we reboot old legends, right? By making sure no one in them smiles?
The movie's long windup has Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) returning from the Crusades, where he fought in the service of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). When Richard is killed while laying siege to a French castle (in a gory and hyper-realistic battle scene that illustrates the barbarism of medieval warfare), Robin and a few of his men desert the army and flee for England. On the way back, he stops off at an estate near Nottingham Castle to return the sword of a slain knight, Sir Robert Loxley. There, Robin learns that the dead knight's father, Walter (Max von Sydow) and widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett) are about to have their land seized by the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew McFadyen.) So Robin agrees to pass himself off as the returned Loxley to save the estate. The fiercely independent Lady Marion is furious at this plan and forces the newcomer to sleep on the floor of her bedchamber with no blanket and only a log for a pillow.
Meanwhile, Richard the Lionheart's brother, the treacherous King John (Oscar Isaac), assumes the throne and immediately begins scheming with his adviser, Godfrey (Mark Strong), to collude with the invading French army in breaking the backs of the English populace with exorbitant taxes. There's a lot of throne-room intrigue, much of which hews fairly closely to the actual facts of political turmoil of 13th-century England. But the movie has to perform some convoluted narrative footwork to connect the Robin Hood story to these larger historical events. In one far-fetched scene, Robin presents the king with a scroll of populist demands that reads like a first draft of the Magna Carta.
The screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, seems to be working from a memo forbidding the use of any recognizable tropes from the Robin Hood legend. Not a soul wears green (even though there's some literary and historical precedent for associating the color with the region where the story takes place). Little John (Kevin Durand) isn't particularly large, Friar John (Mark Addy) never carries Robin Hood on his back across a river, and no one mounts a horse by leaping down onto its back from a tree. Nor, until the movie's last few minutes, is there any of the charitably motivated highway robbery that was the Merry Men's stock in trade. This adaptation seems either not to understand the appeal of its source material or to reject it deliberately. The movie eschews every value we've come to think of as quintessentially Robin Hood-ish: derring-do, mischief, laughter, joy.
Scott has used Crowe's stocky build and brooding, intense manner effectively in the past; in Gladiator, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and other films, the actor's stolid and glowering presence worked on his behalf. But what on earth made anyone think Crowe would make a good Robin Hood? Off the top of my head, I could think of a dozen actors currently working who'd be better-suited for the role. But even if Crowe makes no sense as the outlaw-trickster of Sherwood Forest, he's always an interesting actor to watch (unlike, for example, Kevin Costner, whose 1991 Robin Hood was simply dull), and he's surrounded here by an exceptional supporting cast. Max von Sydow is luminous as the aged but unbowed Sir Walter. Cate Blanchett brings her usual dedication and attention to detail to the humdrum task of playing Lady Marion; she's like a master carpenter asked to craft an Ikea desk. Mark Strong, who's become the go-to Hollywood heavy (he played a suave Jordanian spy in Body of Lies, an occult con artist in Sherlock Holmes, and a sociopathic mob boss in Kick-Ass), schemes with aplomb.
As the movie ends, we've reached the beginning of the Robin Hood legend as we know it, with Robin and Marion setting up a theft-based commune in the woods, a bounty having been placed on their heads by the Sheriff of Nottingham. There's something galling about the confidence with which Scott assumes we were all dying for a 140-minute prequel to a new Robin Hood franchise. But if the principal role were recast in the next installment with an actor with a little sprezzatura—Robert Downey Jr.? Johnny Depp? Brad Pitt?—I'd be willing to make the pilgrimage back to Sherwood.
Slate V: The Critics on Robin Hood, Letters to Juliet, and Just Wright