Ridley Scott is a master of visual craft. Infatuated with detail, he consistently makes movies that are pleasing to the eye. From dazzling imagery to ornate settings, such effects have become his trademark. Scott’s style nevertheless is too often void of depth and loaded with manipulative themes—the murder of family in Gladiator, unjust war in Kingdom of Heaven and racism in American Gangster—that cover up the absence of value. And his newest work, an origins story that hardly deserves the title of Robin Hood, epitomizes this superficial garishness, as he uses visual splendor to suck the life out of a cherished fable.
While preparing the way for a futile franchise, this pragmatic rendition centers on a stern, humorless Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), a skillful archer serving King Richard the Lionheart. Returning to England after fighting in the Crusades, Robin assumes the identity of a knight from Nottingham, the husband of Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett), and soon finds himself defending England from the French Army, led by Prince John’s henchman, Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong).
Though set on innovation, Scott fails at creating something useful by historizing a legend, transforming romanticism into realism. He consumes his film with the specifics of 12th Century Europe: Every castle, landmark and event is named. Each costume, weapon and tool is accurate. His effort to precisely paint his backdrop is striking, and the result is transparently rewarding. Unmistakably, Scott and his cinematographer, John Mathieson, have attained visual brilliance.
And because of this focus, Scott neglects the same elements absent from nearly all his films, specifically those of the last decade. His characters exist merely as archetypes instead of real people. Despite evidence of daddy problems and resentment, Robin lacks a certain drive and humanness that viewers can relate to. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s interest in history also makes the hero far too somber. For a noble adventurer, Crowe’s Robin Hood doesn’t smile much, nor does he seem to be too adventurous.
As for the Merry Men, their connection to Robin is never established. After causing trouble while at war, the strangers plan an escape to England, where they suddenly become best friends. The villains, however, are the shallowest characters of all. They are the usual flat, greedy jerks, who want to rule the world. Yet, how Sir Godfrey, a mere servant, gained so much authority is unknown. And the historical fickleness of Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is overstated. The only convincing character is Marian, as Scott is wisely known for strong female roles; though, without the others following suit, such feminism carries no weight.
It’s not that Helgeland’s script is shoddy, either. While at times cheesy, the dialogue is wholly believable, and hardly cliché. The writing suffers where it’s overly simplistic, for the narrative itself is bland, especially throughout the first hour; it makes you wish there were more battle scenes and less lackluster drama. And this eagerness to remain grim provides a few unintended laughs, particularly in regards to the orphan scavengers who steal from Nottingham. These juvenile rogues are supposed to be spirited, but they seem more like ridiculous, masked Children of the Corn, momentarily turning Scott’s history into hysteria.
These flaws are unfortunate because, even beyond the visual effects, Robin Hood has a lot going for it. Besides casting the overused, unfunny everyman, Russell Crowe, Scott and casting director Jina Jay have chosen a brilliant group of actors, who perform as well as the material lets them. Cate Blanchett, nearly incapable of doing wrong, turns Marian into a courageous and sophisticated woman—but still too chic for the original perception of her role. Kevin Durand is an amusing Little John, a character not seen enough. Even Oscar Isaac distinguishes himself as Prince John, despite his part’s messiness.
Crowe and Blanchett, moreover, do an outstanding job of selling the romance between Robin and Marian. In spite of the lovers’ relationship being different than that joyous, youthful love known to the tale, it’s at least conceivable. And all this good comes together nicely in composer Marc Streitenfeld’s quiet, fitting score that picks up at just the right moments.
Alas, the satisfying elements of the movie can’t surpass its sluggish entanglement in detail. Scott works his same old tricks of shrouding mere eye candy and a lack of substance with sentimentality, violence and themes of vengeance, encouraging his audience to cheer on a skewed concept of justice. But the remolding of a legend is what ultimately kills his film. Scott has turned a myth, a concept essentially, into a history which emerges as dry, insensible clutter that simply looks nice—the kind of stuff the real Robin Hood would defy.