It has taken me three separate attempts to try and figure out how to talk about Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood in some sort of meaningful way. Each attempt has led me down a different path, considering the film in a variety of contexts in hopes of trying to understand just where the film goes wrong. After picking apart the film, turning it over in my head, and going over my experiences with Ridley Scott’s body of work, I have come to only one conclusion: Robin Hood is the first Ridley Scott film that is completely paint by numbers from start to finish. The paint by numbers set might be the one Scott designed himself, but paint by numbers is still paint by numbers.
At the start of the last decade, Scott kicked things off on a relative high with Gladiator (2000), a film that was a solid piece of old fashion sword and sandals filmmaking that was not Scott’s best work, but was certainly worthy of viewing. Gladiator provided an interesting, if conflicted, reflection of the place of violent spectacle in society, giving it slightly more depth than it might have otherwise had. Little over half a decade latter, Scott again returned to the large scale epic with Kingdom of Heaven (2006), which in its true director’s cut form is a more fascinating work than Gladiator, with even greater technical skill demonstrated on the part of Scott.
Now at the start of a new decade, Scott delivers his Robin Hood, and from start to finish, the film plays out like a desperate attempt to reclaim the past glory of Gladiator for both Scott and star Russell Crowe, as they transform the English legend into a tale which follows Gladiator almost beat for beat: a weary soldier wishes to return home, only upon his eventual return finds himself becoming a hero of the people and drawn into the political games of a self absorbed and childish ruler who has just inherited the throne. Unfortunately, Robin Hood is neither a refinement of the earlier work, nor does it expand the themes in any significant way. Instead, their efforts to recreate Gladiator only succeed in doubly damning the film, as the film not only fails to live up to Gladiator, but fails to work as a tale of Robin Hood as well.
If Scott and Crowe were so determined to recreate Gladiator, than one has to wonder why the duo bothered with Robin Hood at all. The legend has always felt more in line with superheroes than it does with grand scale epics. The stories are often episodic in nature, focusing on a band of outlaws who not only rob from the rich and give to the poor (an activity which only happens once in Scott's film I might add), but set out to humiliate a corrupt government and defend the defenseless while hiding out in the forest. Yes, they were military men, and a film focusing on that part of their lives might have been interesting. However, the approach in this film of making Robin a contemplative soldier who yearns to be free of violence only succeeds in transforming the character into one of a million similar characters to populate cinema in recent years.
In an odd way, this homogenized version of the Robin Hood character is encapsulated in the film's action scenes, which are as skillful and professional as any Scott has directed. However, the one thing Robin Hood is known for, if nothing else, is that he uses a bow and arrow. While this weapon of choice does make appearances throughout the film, more often than not time is spent focusing on Robin in sword based combat. One of the key plot points in the film even is about the passing down of a sword from father to son, a sword which ultimately ends up in the hands of Robin. While the passing on of a sword may be more historically accurate (I assume here, but am more than willing to be corrected), given that this is Robin Hood we are talking about, a focus on his weapon of preference would not only have been welcome, but at least give the film something to distinguish it from similar films. Not much of a distinguishing mark mind you, but still a distinction.
The biggest problem with the film however is just how vapid it is. The film is void of any real subtext or meaning, stating so many of its themes and ideas outright that it never gives the audience a chance to think for itself. Yes, it is a summer blockbuster, but it is no excuse. Scott has made vastly intelligent films before without sacrificing intelligence. Even the commentary on violent spectacle in Gladiator was of some interest, even if the film was guilty of the very thing it was criticizing.
I should point out at this point that Robin Hood is not terrible. The film is beautifully shot by director of photography John Mathieson (who surprisingly does not use of the colour blue that often this time out, a possible first in a long while for Ridley Scott), and the cast of the film is uniformly excellent. The problem is just that so much of what is here feels like warmed over seconds rather than a bold creative venture for those involved. Ridley Scott has been long known for tackling pretty much every genre under the sun, usually with a high level of ambition, so to see him rest on past success is more disheartening than anything else.
While general audiences will likely be pleased, fans of Ridley Scott are more than likely to be disappointed in the final effort, while fans of Robin Hood are likely to just be angry with the film overall. Judge where ye stand well, and go forth and make ye decision.