First things first. There is no "correct" Robin Hood. The history surrounding the hosieried vigilante and his merry, forest-dwelling men is so sketchy that for filmmakers through the ages he has been pretty much fair game. Still, if you are going to make a new Robin, as Ridley Scott has with his new version released today, you'd better have a damn good reason.
If a justification for this one is to be had, it is that Scott, producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and the film's star, Russell Crowe, wish to tell the lesser-explored backstory of Robin Of The Hood, and the events that led to the legend. Apparently, before he became the daring and endearing rogue, he was a dull, joyless brute. Good to know.
Scott's film opens with Richard The Lionheart (Danny Huston) making his way back from fighting the Crusades. Among his ranks is a plucky archer called Robin "Longstride", a man of mysterious origins and accent, who comes to the attention of the monarch after he is witnessed participating in a particularly vicious game of Three Cups, One Pea with Little John.
A series of unfortunate events, including King Richard's untimely death, leaves Robin in charge of delivering the kingly crown back to England so that the dastardly next-in-line John (Oscar Isaac) may ascend the throne. At the same time he is roped into posing as one "Robert Loxley" of Nottingham, husband of one Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett), to protect her from tree-dwelling poachers and tax-hungry officials.
As well as the immediate national concerns of the king's empty coffers and the subjects' hoiked taxes (plus ca change) is a more serious threat of French invasion, brought about by the conniving Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), who is doing his best to facilitate the arrival of King Philip of France and his suave, five-o'clock-shadowed troops.
The plot weaves and twists and is fresh and engaging in its unfamiliarity. A shame, then, that the characters are somewhat stale. Crowe's Robin Hood is manly and gruff — at points his voice gets so deep that, except perhaps to blue whales, his lines are unintelligible — but he lacks the sparkle of Errol Flynn's incarnation, or the tenderness of (and no, we can't believe we're typing this either) Kevin Costner's.
Blanchett's poise and cheekbones do their darnedest to make something of Marion, but she is that same feisty lass — who just needs to demonstrate sufficient empowerment by stabbing a few would-be rapists in the neck before she can submit to the hero's scarcely tangible charms — we've seen a hundred times before.
Mark Strong also does the best he can with his cardboard villain (mostly by menacingly stroking a prominent facial scar), Isaac's King John is pompous, preening and a little silly, and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) is reduced to a comic, philandering fop of little significance.
Of course, Scott wouldn't waste an actor of Macfadyen's talent in such a small role. And it is just one of the ways in which we are frequently prodded into remembering: this is a film that is geared up for a sequel. In fact, this film is essentially one long flashback. Hopefully the grim endurance of it will enable the real film — in which Robin Hood is charismatic, outrageous and lives in a FOREST for goodness sake — to begin.
Robin Hood is out in cinemas today