The satisfying thunk of an arrow hitting its mark is a perfect auditory evocation of Robin Hood. The creak of a taught bowstring calls to mind tales of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor as much as a forest green shawl or a band of merry men. Ridley Scott knows this only too well, and the first few scenes of his take on the Robin Hood legend are an archery symphony inside a cacophony of war. The initial action pivots on Russell Crowe as Robin – teaming up with Scott for the fifth time in ten years – and his military companions Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) and Alan A'Dale* (Alan Doyle). They are returning from The Crusades, King Richard the Lionheart's murderous campaign to restore control of ‘The Holy Land' to Christianity. In a visually splendid opening scene, the army execute an efficient attack against French fortifications. There's a noticeable lack (or excellent disguise) of CGI that lends the whole conflict a crunching realism all but lost in many modern day films.
Robin and his cronies are not long for the army. After openly criticizing the King's campaign, the trio are bundled into the stocks and left to rot. Soon enough, the archery crew – now joined by Little John (Kevin Durand) – spy a chance to escape. They make off into the forest and search for safe passage to England's green and pleasant land. From here the plot becomes increasingly complex and twisted, as a story of medieval political intrigue begins to unravel. In the midst of the turmoil, our hero has borrowed the name of Robin Loxley, heir to the Lordship of Nottingham, who lies dead and buried in French soil. At the behest of the elderly Lord (Max von Sydow), Robin keeps up the ruse to help restore the fortunes of the ailing town. As part of the deception, he must act as husband to Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett), a woman with mythical levels of gumption, beauty, and cunning.
The romance between Robin and Marion is a key tent-pole of the myth, but Robin Hood spends so little time on establishing their relationship that when the inevitable passion eventually unfurls it is scarcely believable. This is no slur on the actors. Crowe is always a dependable lead and the role of a swashbuckling noble fits him like a gladiator's loincloth. His English accent wobbles from Welsh to the midlands and back again, but he brings enough depth to the character to push beyond the one-dimensional do-gooder a lesser actor might have drawn from the script. Blanchett is equally dependable and does a good job with the small amount of non-expositional material she is handed. Sadly the screenplay lets her down horribly in the closing minutes, thrusting her into a scene in which she has no place. Robin Hood plays fast and loose with history, but, up until Maid Marion's last hurrah, maintains as decent a sense of realism.
That authenticity is aided by the choice of natural locations. Actors wade towards the camera through boggy marshes or charge on horseback across dark sandy beaches. Each setting is captured beautifully by Scott regular John Mathieson, who presents the overcast beauty of the English countryside in a powerful but maudlin way that neatly reflects the national mentality. The most visually captivating scene features a snarling Mark Strong as the villainous Godfrey. Strong has become the de-facto choice for big budget bad guys, having played the lead villain in both Kick Ass and Sherlock Holmes within the last 12 months. As soon as his angular face hits the screen, you can be certain that he's up to no good. Sure enough, this time he's waiting for a contingent of French soldiers to arrive. He intends to take his new Gallic allies on a rampage around England, collecting taxes for the newly crowned King John. Little does the regent know that his new favourite is secretly in league with the French King, who hopes that John's tax laws will plunge the country into a vulnerable state of civil war. As Godfrey waits in a misty copse, a contingent of French soldiers rear up out of the fog. It's a beautiful moment that reminds you just how adept Scott is at framing this kind of visual instant.
The emergence of the French menace also benefits from a snappy pace. On the surface, Robin Hood is a complicated beast – with numerous story threads intertwining and blending together – but when scenes drag on, the shallowness of screenplay and script begin to show. In fairness, writer Brian Helgeland is hamstrung by cinematic convention. Audiences will not buy into the medieval setting unless all the dialogue is written in the kind of faux olde English that passes for an accurate representation of "how people used to speak in olden times". It's very difficult to convey any great detail in a language one step removed from the viewer's everyday tongue. The middle of the picture suffers most from this syndrome, as long expositional scenes required to explain the complex plot are accompanied by a lame stab at constructing Marion and Robin's romance. Thankfully, most of Robin Hood is well edited and the film chops along at a very decent speed. The picture is at its strongest when Robin and his companions are deep in visceral combat and it's usually only a matter of minutes before we can sit back and enjoy more scenes of people absorbing arrows and waving swords at each other.
Robin Hood is, in equal parts, an enjoyable romp and a bloated epic. Still, the longer the film wore on, the more doubt began to nag at me. Was this really Robin Hood at all? There are less than 30 seconds of Russell Crowe robbing the rich to feed the poor and he spends no time living in the forest as an outlaw. The most memorable features of the legend are tossed aside in favour of a tale about a martial leader who just happens to be a dab hand with a longbow. You may well find plenty to enjoy in Crowe and Scott's re-imagining, but you will see neither head nor tail of the hero from Sherwood Forest.
* Who is apparently the owner of a magically amplified lute, heard crisply and clearly over a tavern full of drunken revelers.