Dana Stevens in Slate:
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.
Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:
Crowe has never possessed much dramatic range, but he can be — and sometimes is here — a tremendously charismatic screen presence who imparts an air of naturalness even to stupid roles in stupid movies. There’s something off about this performance, though. It’s got a calculated movie-star-ness about it, as if Scott had assured him that every character issue and every plot point could be resolved by striking a gloomy non-expression at the perfect angle and holding it for five seconds. Hey, don’t worry about any of that acting-school bullshit, Rusty. They loved you in “Gladiator”! (Which is, at the risk of being obvious, the career-topping, Oscar-sweeping formula Scott and Crowe long to recapture here.)
What I’m working my way around to saying (talk about damning with faint praise!) is that despite its abundant flaws and historical howlers and generally dimwitted tone, “Robin Hood” is a surprisingly enjoyable work of popcorn cinema, if you’re willing to take it on its own terms. As ever, Scott hires the best production-design teams in the business, and his muddy vision of late medieval Britain — where even London is little more than a collection of wood-and-wattle huts built around the royal castle — is richly detailed and totally convincing. Much more important, this is a knockout love story built around two adult characters who’ve learned some of life’s toughest lessons and faced real responsibilities.
I don’t know how much money Cate Blanchett got paid to play Marian Loxley, the aristocratic widow who will become — in the story’s future tense — Robin’s Maid Marian. It was probably more than you and I combined will make in 10 years, but in terms of redeeming this film as a viewing experience, it might not have been enough. For my money, Blanchett’s beauty only grows more luminiscent as she gets older (she celebrates her 41st birthday this week, if you haven’t sent a gift), and in this role as a rural woman forced to run her absent husband’s estate she commands the screen with supernal grace and a fiery sense of purpose.
Moreover, when paired with Blanchett, Crowe’s gloomy demeanor and noncommittal expression — he looks like a man unsure whether what he just ate was chocolate or cat shit — seems directed at a worthy object. In this before-the-man-became-a-legend prequel, Crowe’s Robin Longstride is an archer who skips out on the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) as it pillages its way homeward from the Crusades, perhaps because he’s developed a conscience about all that wanton killing of Muslims. (Ascribing a 21st-century sense of morality and cultural sophistication — not to mention literacy — to the uneducated son of a 13th-century stonemason is nice and all. But, you know, not that plausible.)
E.D. Kain at The League:
Roger Ebert’s review of Robin Hood is not the one I wanted to read. I wanted a thumbs up, four stars, 99% fresh – and instead I learn that this is in fact a prequel to the actual Robin Hood story – much like Alice in Wonderland turned out to be a really boring sequel to that much better tale.
I enjoy Ebert’s curmudgeonly side. His film-buff conservatism comes out in reviews like this one and I find myself nodding in agreement – though, to be fair, I haven’t seen the film myself so I can only speculate. Still – not the real Robin Hood story? Massive battle scenes? Have we lost the art of telling a good story – even when that story is all there written out for us beforehand?
I love the Robin Hood legend for its banditry and its lack of grandiosity. The rebels ambushing caravans in the woods; the archery and daring escapes. I’ve enjoyed every single Robin Hood film I’ve ever seen, and I’d really hate to be disappointed by this one. I fear I will be – since this doesn’t sound anything like Robin Hood at all.
John Gholson at Cinematical:
I’m fine with the formula, even if I’m come to expect more from a director like Scott. It’s a comfort food dish of medieval action; a bowl of extra-lumpy mashed potatoes that’s satisfyingly familiar, if a little bland. I’m not a Robin Hood purist, and I don’t mind the Batman Begins-ification of the character, watching him grow into the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest that everyone’s familiar with. I can’t fault them for trying to find a new way to bring a very old character to life, especially one that’s been done over and over again on film.
I can fault them, however, for the slow-motion black and white flashbacks of Robin Hood’s repressed childhood memories, the predictable plotting, and the general mis-casting of everyone aboard. Crowe and Blanchett both seem too old for their roles, but hey, they’re movie stars, meaning they’re completely watchable in just about anything, no matter how mis-cast. Crowe’s sad sack voice percolates at a low rumble that swallows most of his own dialogue, while Blanchett tries to pick up the slack by being an extra-sassy Marion. Max Von Sydow and the actors playing Robin’s eventual merry men (Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Mark Addy) make the most of their roles, but the bad guys, Mark Strong as the traitorous Godfrey and Oscar Isaac as the cowardly Prince John, come across like thinly-motivated comic book villains.
Godfrey is out to help the French (to what end?) and Prince John wants power without granting his people liberty (good luck with that). Standing in the middle of both men is Robin Longstride (aka Robin Hood, but not just yet), disgraced archer for Richard the Lionhearted, who fakes his way back into England after Richard’s death by posing as the Nottingham soldier Robin Loxley. Robin’s crusade isn’t about killing Muslims in the name of England; it’s fair taxation. Or something. I’m not sure what Robin’s primary motivation is, besides being heroic. He rallies a broken England against French invaders, royally pissing off Prince John, and our story ends where most Robin Hood movies begin — right at the good part.
The truth is, I’m not any more in love with the character than I was when the movie started. Robin Hood, to me, is still a vanilla crusader who’s only good for a couple of hours of arrow-shooting and swashbuckling, and that’s what Robin Hood, the film, delivers. Ridley Scott brings his usual keen cinematic eye and pain-staking attention to period detail to Robin Hood, bringing an uninspired script to life without a grander purpose than to just exist as a typical Summer movie. In another decade, I’m sure someone will attempt to bring the character back to the movies with an all-new spin. Let’s hope they find a new formula.
Marshall Fine at Hollywood and Fine:
Ultimately, the big conflict in this film isn’t Robin Hood standing up for what’s right – it’s England, perched on the brink of civil war, trying to resolve its internal differences to take on the French. But the battle scenes seem perfunctory, almost rote, as though Scott was choosing from a lot of left-over second-unit footage.
Those sequences still have a certain kinetic power but seem like an afterthought. It’s as if what Scott really wanted to do was make a movie about the signing of the Magna Carta, then got cold feet and put in the action set-pieces.
Crowe is still a fascinating actor to watch, someone whose thoughts are always visible. Which is good because Robin doesn’t have much to say here. He and Blanchett have a pleasing friction that eventually turns from antipathy to romance. But, again, that doesn’t seem to be what was uppermost in Scott’s mind.
In the past, I’ve frequently felt that Scott’s films were a triumph of style over substance. But “Robin Hood” is so overburdened with substance that the style is muted, almost invisible at times. And no one wants a summer blockbuster that feels like a history lesson.
Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:
The loveliest, most gloriously pagan Robin Hood may be John Irvin’s 1991 version, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman, worth seeking out on DVD; it was never released in theaters, thanks to the dunderheaded egotism of Kevin Costner, who didn’t want it to compete with his own inane Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (directed by Kevin Reynolds). Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood may be even worse than Costner’s version, though comparing the two makes for a pretty pittling contest. At least Costner’s version feigned some love for its landscape; Scott’s is just a moneygrubbing extravaganza, ugly to look at and interminable to sit through. No movie about the evils of excessive taxation should be this taxing.
UPDATE: A.O. Scott in NYT
Jonathan Chait at TNR
E.D. Kain at The League