For anyone in any doubt as to Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s revisionist intentions, their reduxed Robin Hood should carry its own warnings: no American accents, no Sheriff versus Robin climactic duel, and no jolly shenanigans. If their plan was to deliver a Robin we haven’t seen before, then it’s mission accomplished.
Winding back the historical clock, Scott and Crowe aren’t interested in celebrating the legend, but rather how that legend was created. Like a superhero origin story (think 2008’s Iron Man), they want to start from the beginning. This is a story that thrills in the creation of a hero, leaving the face-off between hero and villain as an afterthought.
Of course, Scott and Crowe’s take on Robin Hood was always going to be different. Originally conceived as a reversal of the popular tale, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’ early screenplay pitched the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero and Robin as the villain. If that wasn’t enough, rumours suggested Crowe was set to take both roles, an acting face-off against himself that would have made Jean Claude van Damme green with envy.
Very little of that screenplay seems to have remained, however (Reiff and Voris are co-credited only with the story here), and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay (his second in as many years for a Scott brother after his work on Tony’s The Taking Of Pelham 123) is a reinvention by other means, showing us the parts other films have left behind.
Introducing us to Robin Longstride in 1199 fighting alongside Richard the Lionheart in France, our hero seems closer to Crowe’s driven Maximus from Gladiator than the chirpy legend we know from Kevin Costner and Errol Flynn. And Crowe barely cracks a smile for the first hour, so determined is he to make his Robin a man with purpose and not an action hero.
He’s accompanied by a motley crew – Scott Grimes’ Will Scarlet, Kevin Durand’s Little John, Alan Doyle’s Allan A’Dayle – who do seem, for the most part, quite merry. Indeed, most of the film’s humour comes from their interplay, Durand, in particular, shining bright despite a role that just asks him to be tall and likeable.
But this is a Robin Hood story that tones down the frivolity and humour, which is both its blessing and its curse. It starts with an action scene almost immediately, a terrific castle siege that doesn’t aim for the epic scale of Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven, but shares that film’s visceral impact. Arrows pierce limbs and axes thump into soft flesh. What CGI there is gets used sparingly and convincingly, Scott getting away with an awful lot of bloodshed within the confines of a 12A rating.
But this isn’t an action film in the way many will be hoping. Helgeland’s screenplay gives Scott a lot of ground to cover in telling how Robin Longstride became the Robin Hood we know. Inter-cutting between France and England for the first half hour, it eventually rests in Nottingham, but then only to paint a picture of a nation at war with itself, a newly crowned King raiding his own people at the behest of a treacherous advisor (Mark Strong, who plays evil better than anyone these days and seems to be taking every opportunity to) plotting with a French king to invade a weakened England.
Amidst all this is the film’s love story, Cate Blanchett’s Marion as feisty a warrior as Robin himself. To fit it all in, Scott has to sacrifice action, which is by no means a bad thing. Robin Hood looks gorgeous throughout, is filled with great actors doing good work, and has moments of nicely underplayed humour. But it’s often too serious for its own good, missing the sense of fun and adventure of Costner’s Prince Of Thieves.
The biggest casualty is that film’s trump card, the Sheriff of Nottingham. If Crowe’s Robin is a folk hero Iron Man, then Costner’s was 1989-era Batman, a hero upstaged, and a film made better by the villain, Alan Rickman stealing the plaudits like Nicholson’s Joker.
Helgeland shunts the Sheriff to the sidelines here, and he’s simply not important to the story being told here.
You have to pity Matthew Macfadyen. Playing a role so integral to previous versions, he gets just a few minutes on screen, his Sheriff never meeting Crowe’s Robin. Scott’s film ends where those others begin, leaving the famed clash between the two almost as a promise for a further instalment.
It’s not a promise Scott and Crowe will likely deliver on. The former’s plate already looks pretty full for the next few years, while Crowe may find he’ll be too old by then. Although that doesn’t seem to have stopped him here. He’s older than Sean Connery was in 1976’s Robin And Marian but looks otherwise, his physical performance a thing of wonder.
The accent (a broad Yorkshire one, possibly) doesn’t always convince, but he looks the part in every sense, more convincing as a master archer and swordsman than Costner’s mulleted Robin.
Robin Hood finally finds its rhythm in the last half hour, having done all the hard work to get there over the previous 90 minutes. It hits upon the mix of action, drama and romance it didn’t have room for before.
Along those lines, another instalment in the adventures of Crowe’s Robin “The Hood” (a name he only earns in the film’s closing moments) would be very welcome.
Robin Hood opens in UK cinemas today.