“It’s all up there on the screen,” goes the inevitable defense when films arrive in theaters dogged by stories of their great expense. At least that claim is true with Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, a film of knights in armor, castles, zipping arrows, siege engines, and horses, horses, horses. Of course, it matters less what makes it to the screen than what’s done with it once it’s there, and while Scott is one of the few directors who could field-marshal this sort of spectacle and still deliver a coherent film, simply ending up with a fitfully engaging behemoth of a movie isn’t accomplishment enough. Image for image and shot for shot, Scott is still one of the most striking directors around, but in Robin Hood, the cohesive particles keeping those images together—frills like a compelling plot and sculpted characters—prove unstable.
Working from a script by Brian Helgeland, Scott sidesteps the usual established elements of the Robin Hood story by offering a who-he-is-and-how-he-came-to-be origin story. Opening in the final days of Richard The Lionheart’s return from the Third Crusade, it characterizes Robin (Russell Crowe) as a world-weary soldier and gives him one great scene directly confronting Richard (Danny Huston) and calling out his king for the atrocities he forced Crowe to commit in the name of God and Crown. But any hint of a fresh take on the material pretty much ends there. After Crowe and his semi-merry, thinly characterized men make their way to Nottingham to return a sword taken from a fallen knight, he winds up posing as a dead man to help protect an aging, taxed-to-the-point-of-poverty nobleman (Max von Sydow) and his fetching, flinty, widowed daughter-in-law Marion (Cate Blanchett).
The film features a couple of memorable action sequences—including a climax that splices together elements from The Two Towers’ famous siege sequence and the opening of Saving Private Ryan. It gains some charismatic gravity from Crowe and Blanchett, and an admirably plausible, mist-and-mud-drenched depiction of 12th-century England. But the thin script—which revolves around a nonsensical secret origin for the Magna Carta—and a trebuchet-like pace work against its good points. So does Scott’s blinkered, workmanlike approach. Robin develops a socialist’s hatred of inequality and a Tea Partier’s aversion to taxes, but the film downplays the political subtext—or any sort of subtext—in the single-minded interest of hitting its target. It sticks it with the sound of a shrug.