The legend of Robin Hood is a Hollywood staple that has served as fodder for countless adventure films. Due to remakes and reinterpretations on a regular basis, the story was drained of tension a long time ago, leaving almost no new ground to explore. Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights in 1993 was the last cinematic take on the story, though the last serious adaptation was the critically-panned Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves from 1991. Thus, a new Robin Hood flick was overdue since it can be argued that the current generation of movie-goers deserve a new version. Famed director Ridley Scott accepted the challenge of helming this new adaptation, and, to his credit, has succeeded against all odds. 2010’s Robin Hood is a darker, grittier take on the character with first-rate production values, which is the way Robin Hood should have been transplanted to film a long time ago.

The Robin Hood equivalent of a superhero origins story, this movie takes place before Robin is an outlaw – and even before he’s known as Robin Hood. Before robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, Robin Longstride (Crowe) was an archer in King Richard the Lionheart’s crusade army who decided to desert once the king is killed during battle. Escaping into the forests with Will Scarlett (Grimes), Little John (Durand) and Allan A’Dayle (Doyle), Robin assumes the identity of fallen soldier Robin of Loxley, and returns to England to pass on Richard’s crown. He visits Nottingham as well, whereupon he’s implored by Robin Loxley’s blind father Walter (Sydow) to continue assuming Loxley’s identity. Meanwhile, the traitorous Godfrey (Strong) tears up the English countryside in a mad plan of profit and murder which would facilitate a French invasion of England.

A lot of recognisable characters from Robin Hood lore make appearances throughout the movie. In addition to Robin himself and Marion (Blanchett), Friar Tuck (Addy) is introduced, as well as the various constituents of Robin’s “Merry Men”. The proverbial Robin Hood villain, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfadyen), was allotted a minor role, and is by no means the central villain of the film.

For Robin Hood, Ridley Scott and his team have laid the groundwork for a version of the legend based in the reality of the period. Essentially, it offers a glimpse into each of the story’s characters, and we get a real sense of Robin Hood’s influences and personality, giving the film something to do other than detail the do-goodery of Robin’s Merry Men. Make no mistake: this is a far different Robin Hood – in fact, this is more Braveheart than a story to do with the hero of Sherwood Forest (Bravehood?). It’s a love it or hate it affair, too – either you’ll be willing to enjoy a different take on the character, or you’ll yearn for colourful Errol Flynn-style antics (it is entitled Robin Hood, after all). In this sense, what people will love about this version is exactly what others will hate. Not that Robin Hood is perfect, mind you – even if you roll with the punches, the film’s political machinations lead to a meandering, convoluted, long-winded middle period that swerves too far away from the sense of adventure which constitutes the movie’s core. More importantly, it’s emotionally aloof when it should be affecting or uplifting. Also, the filmmakers betrayed the character of Marion with a ridiculous third-act gimmick. It won’t be spoiled here, but rest assured you will either laugh or growl “WTF?!”

Over recent years, too many directors have grown mesmerised by video-game syndrome that they are positively clueless when it comes to staging action scenes (see Clash of the Titans), hence it’s wholly refreshing to witness an action-adventure helmed by a director who knows his craft. There are various battle scenes throughout Robin Hoodwhich were handled great with artistry and skill. Given that Scott’s filmmaking trademark is the visual quality of his movies, it should come as no surprise to learn that Robin Hoodis visually impressive. The camerawork by seasoned cinematographer John Mathieson (in his 5th collaboration with Ridley Scott) is stunning, and captured the harshness of medieval life with such detail that nothing breaks the illusion of this being set in the 12th Century. Most impressive are the sweeping shots during the battles, often accompanied by the transfixing, atmospheric score courtesy of Marc Streitenfeld. However, a PG-13 rating was mandatory for maximizing box office profits, disallowing serious bloodletting and sexuality. It weakens the film’s impact. One must wonder if this is the studio-mandated trim, and if Ridley Scott’s vision of the movie is a longer, more fully-formed, more violent R-rated version.

The entire cast is superb from top to bottom. Amidst all the battles and archery antics, Crowe is a completely believable Robin Hood who’s a man of both thought and action. To the actor’s credit, his performance is underplayed and this lack of bravado seems appropriate for this take on the legend. Cate Blanchett, meanwhile, is a magnificent, tough Marion who manages to be every bit the match for Robin. Mark Strong, who has recently played villains in The Young Victoria, Sherlock Holmes and 2010’s Kick-Ass, is still a solid antagonist, though he has become type-cast in these types of roles. Among Robin’s Merry Men, the standouts are Mark Addy as Friar Tuck and Kevin Durand as Little John. Both men look their parts, and managed to add a touch of humour to the serious nature of the adventure. The elders of the cast are equally outstanding – Max von Sydow is warm and captivating as Sir Walter Loxley, while William Hurt is memorable as Sir William Marshal. Oscar Isaac, meanwhile, is an effective King John.

Rather than a light-hearted, swashbuckling tale, 2010’s Robin Hood presents the infamous character in the context of a dark medieval war epic, and it’s a change for the better. Literally, the film ends with the beginning, as King John declares the hero of Sherwood Forest to be an outlaw and a title card proclaims “And so the legend begins“. While many will deem this 140-minute prequel long and unnecessary, it’s vital for both putting the character into perspective and ensuring this take is something unique. Thankfully, this origins tale is nothing short of enthralling and fascinating.

7.3/10