The legend of Robin Hood has been fodder for countless adventure films, all bound together by a certain tights-n-woodsy appearance. It's a story drained of tension long ago, populated with characters known the world over, rotated every few years to refresh moviegoers on the basics of outlaw justice and moony romance. Famed director Ridley Scott has accepted the challenge of a "Robin Hood" adaptation, and while the deck was stacked mightily against the filmmaker, he winds a flawed, but effective arrow-thwacked yarn, concentrating on the origins of Mr. Hood and his rise to fugitive hero status.
An archer in King Richard the Lionheart's crusade army, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) has decided to end his duty, escaping into the forests with Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), Little John (Kevin Durand), and Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle). After witnessing the treachery of Godfrey (Mark Strong), a trusted English henchman working clandestinely for the French empire, Robin assumes the identity of a fallen soldier, returning to Nottingham to send word of Lionheart's death to powermad Prince John (Oscar Isaac). There, Robin is taken in by the dead man's blind father, Walter Loxley (a spirited Max von Sydow), and introduced to his widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett), convinced to continue the charade to keep peace as Godfrey tears up the countryside in a mad plan of profit and murder. Finding the war for England's future at their doorstep, Robin and the fallen territories team up to take down Godfrey and push away encroaching French forces.
In many ways, "Robin Hood" could be classified as a prequel, which isn't perhaps the most cinematically challenging route of scripting (credited here to Brian Helgeland), but at the very least it gives the film something to do other than detail banal do-goodery and the antics of the Merry Men. By taking matters back to the beginning, the script allows Scott an opportunity to organize his own order of business to the ancient tale, using Robin's path of identity to position the usual "Hood" suspects, a motley crew that also includes a bee-keeping Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfayden). The storytelling effort isn't irresistibly volatile, but Scott pumps some rousing agitation into the production, which has fun playing directly into the colorful legend while stripping down "Hood" to the bitter basics.
Scott's become a real connoisseur of these battle epics, with "Gladiator" and "Kingdom of Heaven" acting as a proper primer for the spectacle in "Robin Hood." Due to the drain of the crusade years, the bloodbaths are kept to an enjoyable minimum, as Scott reduces the number of soldiers but increases of chaos to a pleasing PG-13 blur of swooshing arrows, clanging swords, and yowling death. While Scott can't let go of his hacky visual crutches to communicate admittedly stale sequences of warfare, the elements remain effective, due to the straining cast and the pounding score from Marc Streitenfeld. Surely, the film resembles countless other period war films, but the difference here is the birth of an outlaw, cleanly displaying the character's disenchantment with royal leadership, finding his conscience to be a more rewarding moral compass.
Hoisting "Robin Hood" to the heights it reaches is the ensemble, which covers a delightful collection of faces and big screen temperaments. In fact, there's so much thespian might swung about, Robin Hood has some trouble holding the attention of his own film. The screenplay lurches around striving to build a new framework for Robin and his ascension into selfless heroism, stuffing the picture with a host of characters developing their essential motivation. The bustle of names and places brings around confusion at times, especially to anyone not up on their Robin Hood fundamentals. It's not a particular irritant, but the film does wander away from its core ingredients on occasion to play a few rounds of Risk, satisfying history junkies.
Holding down the fort wonderfully are Crowe and Blanchett, who share tender chemistry as the couple thrown together by chance. Crowe is expectedly brawny as Robin, but it's not a rabid performance, showing more introspection than I was aware Scott was capable of allowing, tracing that man's alarm as his chance encounter with the Loxley family uncovers a distant past of daddy issues and riddles of steel. Blanchett is generously fierce as Marion, balancing the requirements of rural hardship with a flicker of faith as she comes around to Robin's heartfelt intentions. The duo works well together with limited screentime, saving the greatest stretch of the Robin/Marion love story for a potential sequel, which immediately registers as a colossal disappointment, yet gives hope that a return trip to Sherwood Forest might hit a perfectly melodious note of affection for this iconic pair.
"Robin Hood" is unkempt and frayed around the edges, but the fortitude of the film is surprisingly sincere. It doesn't frolic like Flynn, delight like Disney, or careen like Costner, but this rewiring of the Robin Hood fable splatters around the muck agreeably, hitting soaring points of romance, villainy, and daredevil archery, sold with atypical vigor from the traditionally sleepy Ridley Scott.