There was a time I would have call Ridley Scott one of the greatest directors of all time, and with classics like Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator tucked under his belt it’s easy to see why. However, it seems like his pool of talent has dried and his films this last decade are only getting the dregs that he can wring out. Hannibal was a forgettable follow up to Silence Of The Lambs, Black Hawk Down was decent but hardly revolutionary, and then came the days of his undying love for Russell Crowe, trying to make lighting strike twice between the two of them, but thus far failing on all counts. The best way to show what I mean is by a direct comparison between their latest collaboration Robin Hood to their last great film Gladiator, a comparison I couldn’t shake from my head the whole time I was watching Robin Hood.
First and foremost the most obvious connection is old Rusty, who really his fulfilling his cinematic quest of “fightin’ round the world”. Crowe is certainly a capable actor, and is fully deserving of all the accolades he has accumulated but I think the reason Crowe delivers a much more iconic performance as Maximus over Robin, is the fact that Maximus is a much more complex and interesting character. Maximus is an esteemed general who looses everything, including his family and is outlawed by the Emperor in the opening scenes. Robin is a talented archer who starts of with little, ends with little and is outlawed by the King, except this time this spans over an entire movie not just as a character introduction. Because of this Maximus has a clearly defined goal, revenge and perhaps the liberation of Rome too, whilst Robins story is far too episodic to become completely emotionally invested in his character arc. He wants to flee from the army, he does soon after. He wants to return the sword to Nottingham, he does soon after. He has to pretend to be Maid Marion’s husband, he does for a short while afterward. He wants to unite all of England to defeat the French… Now I won’t give away the ending, but I’m sure you can guess. And at each step it’s never really that difficult for him to achieve his short term goals, he does it all with relative ease.
Now for every dashing leading man there is always a cranky villain twirling his moustache in the shadows. Joaquin Phoenix got Oscar nominated for his performance in Gladiator, and deservedly so. His character was emotionally complex being menacing but also naïve, jealous and petty who has a feasible emotion behind every decision. I for one wanted to pull him out of the screen and beat him to a pulp during that fantastic scene where he describes that Maximus’ wife moaned like a whore when she was being murdered. Now that’s a villain. Now who exactly is the antagonist in Robin Hood? Well the fact that this isn’t easy to give an answer is the major problem. We’ve got Mark Strong playing Godfrey, the man who betrayed England to the French. We’ve got Matthew Macfayden as The Sherriff of Nottingham, the man whose selfishness and greed is greater than his duty to his township. We’ve got the King of France who aspires to conquer England. We’ve got King John of England who youth, jealousy and greed makes him an enemy to all the English. And not one of them has a motive more interesting than money or greed, plus it makes it hard to know exactly who we’re rooting against. Phoenix’s Commodus was such a successful nemesis in the way you could understand where he was coming from.
So we’ve got out leading man, got our villain, but there’s also our damsel in distress. It always good to see female characters not merely being arm candy and waiting on the side for the men to do all the work, which is thankfully not the case in either film, but where Gladiator once again emerges on top is in how this is achieved. Connie Nielsen plays Lucilla, sister to Commodus and it’s implied she has lingering feelings for Maximus. She’s strong willed and ballsy, always trying to do what’s best for the country and especially for her son and certainly plays ever card she has to offer to do so. Blanchett’s Maid Marion is also a strong willed and ballsy woman, but in this instance the film goes one step too far, not merely relying on her to have a strong personality but having her physically picking up a sword and charging into battle ahead of a small troop of juvenile delinquents on Shetland ponies. This even seems to be all hypocritically undone when Maid Marion swiftly gets her ass handed to her on the battle field and requires Robin to come and save the day. To remain historically accurate does not mean presentations of women need to be as sexist as the times they live in, but there still needs to be an air of authenticity. Lucilla never had to enter the Coliseum twirling a sword in order to prove her strength as a character.
Don’t be mistaken, I did enjoy Robin Hood and I do anticipate the sequel that the entire films sets itself up for but this is once again another problem. The film starts far too early, and finished halfway through where the real movie should have been. Consider this as an alternative: Meet Robin Hood, soldier for the English army living in Nottingham where he is respected by the town folk and surrounding towns too. When a war between England and France arises, he pretends to be a knight to unite England and they emerge victorious but the king is jealous of the way the people praised Robin over him, and thus outlaws him for pretending to be a knight. This could have been the opening third which would then lead into a film with a much clearer objective, making for a much more satisfying ending.
There were many things I enjoyed about Robin Hood, including the opening scenes, the rousing battle sequences, the occasional tongue in cheek (would have liked more of this), and his band of merry men added a much needed flair to the events of the film. It certainly contains the visual feast that Gladiator had to offer, with impeccable art direction and costumes. However unavoidable comparisons to Gladiator make you realise just how much better it could have been.