Director Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is puzzler, a "re-imagining" of a tale that not only didn't need to be re-thought, but one that's already so well-known that monkeying with key elements makes it feel as if those who made the film simply got their facts wrong. It's an origin story created for a character whose entire tale was already an origin story, re-writing the basic premise of Robin Hood's legend to turn it into a mash-up of Spider-Man and Gladiator.
Kicking off in 1199 ("the turn of the 12th century," as a title incorrectly states), Richard The Lionheart (Danny Huston) is closing out his Third Crusade by torching a castle in France. One of his soldiers, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is pulled from the ranks by the king and given the chance to speak. After politely dressing down the king for the murderous atrocities committed in England's name, he and his compatriots are placed in stocks. This is, of course, so that we can see Robin as an honest man who disrepects authority, but it really just makes him look like a guy who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut.
After a very loud, chaotic and by-the-numbers battle scene, Robin and his somewhat merry pals escape and head back to England on a contrived quest to return the sword of a fallen soldier to the man's father. For the second act, screenwriter Brian Helgeland (story credited to Kung Fu Panda scribes Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris), turns to overused rom-com material: Robin impersonates the dead fellow, Robin Loxley, to get to Nottingham, only to have the man's aged father (Max von Sydow) ask him to keep up the charade so that his daughter-in-law, Marian (Cate Blanchett) can hold onto the family estate. So Robin and Marian have to pretend to be married! Which includes sleeping in the same bedroom, to fool the servants! Oh, Ridley Scott -- who knew that, deep down, you'd prefer to be directing screwball comedies?
Perhaps the Robin Hood story was appealing to Scott and his producers because it is, indeed, a legend that dates back to the 13th century, and can ethically be changed and mutated in any way one sees fit. Marian, in this case, is older and the widow of a knight; her role in the folk tales has ranged from pagan virgin to daughter of an assassin to court lady-in-waiting, so changing her up a bit is part of the game. Similarly, in Robin's cute-meets with Little John (Kevin Durand) and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), the changes aren't crucial to the plot, but because of the numerous times we've seen the story told in our lifetimes these alterations come off as arbitrary. It's a little like making a Johnny Appleseed movie, but having him plant peach trees instead because peaches tested better with the 15-to-27 demographic.
In his fifth Scott-directed venture, Crowe doesn't bother to stretch his acting muscles in any way, merely growling, scowling and squinting as he walks though each scene as if determined to just get it all over with as soon as possible. He's surrounded at every turn by either lush scenery (broken up every few minutes by titles telling us that we're in England or France or Nottingham, then back in France again) or by CGI-enhanced battles in which every arrow is released with an ear-splitting gunshot effect, and each impact of fist or sword sounds like a sledgehammer slamming into a bag of concrete.
There are other actors in the film, although they're one-dimensional at best -- in the case of the Merry Men, it's nigh impossible to tell the difference between Will Scarlet and Allen A'Dayle, since they don't actually do anything. William Hurt shows up for no good reason as an advisor to the king, Mark Strong plays a two-faced French spy as if he's in a Guy Ritchie movie, and Oscar Isaac channels Russell Brand for his turn as Prince-turned-King John. Isaac also has the best lines in the film, as when Eleanor of Aquitane (Eileen Atkins) feeds him a canard about how milking a dry cow will get one kicked off the milking stool and he responds, "Mother, spare me your barnyard memories -- you have none, and I don't understand them."
Despite all the chaos and change-for-change's-sake, Scott manages to deliver an entertaining enough sword epic until his final act, at which point everything devolves into a level of absurdity that destroys what slim goodwill may have been created. Coincidences pile up, entire armies appear out of nowhere, characters travel extensive distances in the blink of an eye, and the Magna Carta is created on the spot. (What, you didn't know that Robin Hood was responsible for the Magna Carta? Read a book!) By the movie's end, the stupid far outweighs the clever, leaving nothing but a loud, dirty memory and a waste of a lot of money and talent.