Thursday, May 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.20: Ridley Scott's Robin Hood

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 29 (C-)

Man oh man, do I hate to end things on a negative note. Ridley Scott has made more strong films in the past decade than many give credit (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick men, Kingdom of Heaven’s Director’s Cut), but his output as of late has been more than a little dispiriting, starting with the thoroughly mediocre and anonymous romance-comedy A Good Year to the solid but impersonal American Gangster to the eminently forgettable Body of Lies. His most recent film at least sounded more promising at its inception: originally titled Nottingham, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’ spec script was one of the most original Robin Hood tales ever conceived.

The film would feature the Sheriff of Nottingham as the central character, a sympathetic man in a love triangle with Maid Marian and a nasty version of Robin Hood, all while the sheriff investigates a series of grisly murders that Robin was framed for. Russell Crowe was cast as Robin Hood, and Ridley Scott was brought on as director. For whatever reason, Scott decided to go with a more traditional Robin Hood tale (or rather a “how he became Robin Hood” tale) written by Brian Helgeland of L.A. Confidential fame. The result is the single most tedious film of Scott’s career.

Robin Longstride (Crowe in his fifth and worst film with Scott) is an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army. As he returns from the Crusades, he voices his unhappiness with being part of the violent struggle, and he and his friends are imprisoned. Richard (Danny Huston) is soon killed by the treacherous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), who works for the French army. Richard’s wicked brother John (Oscar Isaac) takes over England, and soon harsh taxes begin over the people. Robin impersonates a dead knight and, in accordance with the knight’s wishes, visits his father (Max von Sydow) and his widow Marian (Cate Blanchett). Robin is soon caught up in a war between France and England, and he, Marian, and his gang of “merry men” fight for England, and for freedom.

Robin Hood is more immediately recognizable as a Ridley Scott film than A Good Year, American Gangster, and Body of Lies, in that Scott plays more with lighting and stages more epic battle scenes in keeping with his more recent war epics. But where Gladiator was exhilarating, Black Hawk Down punishing, and Kingdom of Heaven thoughtful, Robin Hood is mostly forgettable. Yes, the battle scenes are expertly staged, as always. But we’ve seen battle sequences from Scott before, and better. When Scott more or less restages the opening sequence from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for the climax, it’s hard not to think of the better film that influenced it. It plays almost like a parody of Scott’s other war epics, with none of the rousing energy or emotional power. Scott’s previous epics recalled the grandeur of Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Seven Samurai. Robin Hood shows how Scott had wringed this formula dry by the end of the 2000s. And where Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven were vivid and used the period details to enhance their story, Robin Hood is murky, dreary, and no fun to look at.

Robin Hood has a good cast, but it doesn’t use them particularly well. Danny Huston’s Richard the Lionheart makes little impression, nor do the various merry men or William Hurt as William Marshal. Max von Sydow is solid, as always, but isn’t given much to do other than play the kindly old man. Oscar Isaac was a bright spot in Body of Lies, but he’s basically asked to repeat Joaquin Phoenix’s role in Gladiator, but with a weaker script to work with. Mark Strong is fine as Godfrey, but he’s played so many villains over the past few years that this one doesn’t do much to distinguish itself. As for Crowe and Blanchett? Neither of them are actively bad, but they’re working with a script that takes itself too seriously despite giving them virtually no depth of character to work with. He’s a hero because he’s Robin Hood, she’s a heroine because she’s Maid Marian. Yawn.

It’s an old question at this point, but really: did we need another Robin Hood? Did we need an origin story for him? It isn’t even as if this is Gladiator, a familiar story told a new way. This is an old story told a painfully generic and comically solemn way, with characters and colors that all bleed together in the tedium. It has none of the emotion or thought behind Scott’s best films. Much blame can go to Crowe for not fighting for the original script and the new work by Helgeland (whose work outside of his Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential is a little less impressive), with its focus on dull political subplots like no Scott film since 1492. At the end of the day, though, Scott chose to make this ossified, dull piece of junk, and it can’t even be called one of his interesting failures. It’s part of a recent run of generic films from Scott, and it’s easily the weakest.

But, on the bright side, it might be the last. Scott remains one of the most gifted craftsmen of his generation, one whose best work ranks among the best genre films ever made. Prometheus, his first return to sci-fi since his masterpiece Blade Runner and a prequel to the space-horror film Alien, looks like one of his most promising features in years. His work with Michael Fassbender in Prometheus has prompted him to work with Fassbender again on the Cormac McCarthy-penned The Counselor. He has his name attached to a number of other projects, some promising (Tripoli), some curious (Blade Runner sequel), some…bizarre (a film based on the board game Monopoly…no, really). Here’s hoping we get a few more gems.

Ridley Scott: All Films Considered.

1.     Blade Runner (A)
2.     Alien (A)
3.     Kingdom of Heaven (A)
4.     Thelma and Louise (A-)
5.     Black Hawk Down (A-)
6.     Matchstick Men (A-)
7.     The Duellists (A-)
8.     Gladiator (B+)
9.     White Squall (B)
10.  American Gangster (B)
11.  G.I. Jane (B-)
12.  Body of Lies (B-)
13.  Legend (C+)
14.  Someone to Watch Over Me (C)
15.  A Good Year (C)
16.  Hannibal (C-)
17.  Black Rain (C-)
18.  Robin Hood (C-)
19.  1492: Conquest of Paradise (D+)

Shorts: 1984 (A), Boy and Bicycle (B)

Best Actor: Harrison Ford (Blade Runner)
Runner-up: Russell Crowe (Gladiator)

Best Actress: Sigourney Weaver (Alien)
Runner-up: Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise)

Best Supporting Actor: Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner)
Runner-up: Edward Norton (Kingdom of Heaven)

Best Supporting Actress: Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men)
Runner-up:  Sean Young (Blade Runner)

Best scene: “Tears in the rain…” (Blade Runner)
Runner-up: Ripley’s escape (Alien)

Director Spotlight will be on break in June, but in its place will be a special project with The Film Temple's terrific sister site, G-blatt's Dreams ( highlighting the work of the great popcorn filmmaker James Cameron, just in time for the summer. Updates will take a bit longer, but we're both excited about this. Hope you are too.

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