It's far from great, and it's probably going to be just as forgettable as the last few movies he's made, but Robin Hood is Sir Ridley Scott's least objectionable film since 1982's Blade Runner. Scott can thank two collaborators for his latest film's general success. First, cinematographer John Mathieson's skillful use of natural light in castles and churches occasionally stills the din of some overly busy scenes, and when Scott's peripatetic camera finally settles into an outdoor shot, the trees and leaves of Nottingham Forest glister with a fluorescent verdure not unlike Avatar's CGI nature walks.
Second, while Robin Hood is largely a chest-beating prelude to what looks like at least two sequels about a surly outlaw who changes the course of history, Cate Blanchett's scene-stealing Marion Loxley uses her toughness and furious wit to disrupt several otherwise formulaic romantic-subplot scenes and defuse most of the boys' saber-rattling about honor and duty, kings and subjects, and lions and lambs.
Russell Crowe plays Robin Longstride (né Hood) as a sullen warrior returning home from the Crusades because, well, that's what the story demands. Robin seems like any other soldier, but he's destined for greatness. In fact, the night before he's slain by an arrow while leading a charge, King Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston) breaks up a campfire tussle to give Robin admirable personal qualities that he never really shows.
Several horseback rides later, Robin finds himself courting Marion and playing a role in helping the new King John (Oscar Isaac, mugging like mad) defend Albion from the French hordes, led by his double-crossing sidekick Godfrey (Mark Strong, tonguing a Joker-like scar from one of Robin's arrows).
Like a dutiful soldier, Robin Hood follows the pattern set for action-franchise reboots without asking questions. This formula requires the filmmakers to play up the squalor of the environment from which our hero emerges to give a sense of the raw corruption and filth that yields legendary goodness. (Check.)
It also demands that the filmmakers thicken the political intrigue to invoke a specious contemporary resonance that vanishes upon contact. (Check: Robin Hood has nothing to say about Tea Party patriots.)
Finally, the filmmakers must unleash frantic, disorienting action sequences at regular intervals so that the flash of speed overruns any lingering questions about space, scale, and sound. (Check: If, as some scientists say, movie editing has evolved toward the natural pattern of human attention, then we're all hopelessly distracted to the point of brain damage.)
Still, the lack of mischievous, fun-loving adventure in this version of Robin Hood leaves a gaping, sucking void in the film not unlike the wounds doled out at the film's climactic beachfront battle, which is an appalling rip-off of Saving Private Ryan. In contrast to my two favorite versions of the story (Errol Flynn's Technicolor party from 1938 and Disney's funky animated version from 1973), there's too little about merry men robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. As a prequel, Robin Hood is an unusually rugged and startlingly humorous overture from the story everyone knows, but it's business as usual in too many other ways.