Imagine if you went to see Batman Begins and the entire movie featured Bruce Wayne engaged in a legal battle with the city of Gotham over zoning, and there was a guy named Joe Kerr on the City Council Planning Board who was obviously going to be important later on but did nothing at all the whole film. And then imagine that, in the last three minutes of the film, Wayne finally put on that famous mask and a voice over explained to us that from then on he would be the crimefighter we all know as Batman, and he would have many adventures.
That’s Robin Hood – a giant cock tease of a movie that purports to be the secret origin of that archer who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but is actually yet another variation on Braveheart‘s anachronistic call to democracy. In this film Robin is barely seen using his signature bow and arrow, and instead of King John’s gold he’s looking for the enfranchisement of the good people of England. A proper subtitle for this film might well have been Robin Hood: Rise of the Magna Carta.
And that’s one problem, to have a movie called Robin Hood that’s totally not about the Robin Hood character we know, but it’s another to have a bad movie called Robin Hood that’s totally not about the Robin Hood character we know. I’ve seen the entire film and I’m not sure that I could tell you what the story of it is; I could explain to you the basic events that occur during the course of the film, and how they’re connected chronologically, but that’s not really a story. This film isn’t actually about anything; there’s no forward plot momentum throughout and characters do things simply because they need a way to pass the time and get to the next scene.
“Young” Robin Hood is a slightly roguish archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army, having gone to fight in the Middle East and now coming home to England. King Richard is killed and the crown is almost lost through treachery, but Robin and his men get it and bring it back to England. For reasons that aren’t particularly interesting they pretend to be knights of the realm; when they get back to England Robin continues the charade, pretending to be the dead Sir Robin Loxley and heads to that guy’s ancestral estate in Sherwood Forest. For reasons that also aren’t particularly interesting Sir Robin’s father insists that Robin Hood keep pretending to be his son, and pretend to be married to Maid Marion. And then everybody fights in a big war.
It’s the same swords and mud bullshit Ridley Scott cranks out every second or third picture these days, but the returns have diminished so much as to border on unwatchable. The guy can make these sorts of movies in his sleep and I’m not entirely sure that isn’t what he’s done here. There’s not a compelling storyline in the film, and the movie’s constant refrain of liberty and freedom is tedious. Yes, there are sociopolitical elements to the Robin Hood myth, but this film foregrounds them to the point that Robin Hood comes off more Norma Rae than Prince of Thieves. I’m not sure I ever wanted to sit through a scene where the bandit of Sherwood Forest delivers a ‘rousing’ speech about freedom to the King of England and assembled landowners, but Brian Helgeland’s script made me do it anyway.
Robin Hood as political agitator might not be so bad if it was accompanied by Robin Hood as master archer, but this movie doesn’t have much time for trick shots. Robin Hood famously began life as Nottingham, a script whose main conceit was that the Sheriff of Nottingham was Robin Hood, but those interesting edges were smoothed out – taking with them almost anything that would make Robin Hood identifiable to audiences. The Merry Men are there (and we get a meet cute with Friar Tuck as well), but they seem to be the only elements that are taken from the mythology. I’m not some kind of Robin Hood purist here, but it’s hard for me to believe somebody spent 200 million dollars on a Robin Hood movie and forgot to fill it with cool bow and arrow scenes. That just seems like the first thing you’d include – at least before you’d include a massive beachfront assault on England by France, which this movie bafflingly climaxes with.
Not only are the familiar elements of the myth missing, but I’m not sure when Robin Hood will have time to develop them. The main character, like everyone else in this movie, is incredibly fucking old. I feel like a soulless studio exec saying this, but it’s weird watching the origin story of a character when that character is being played by a bloated guy in his late 40s. Considering the health care of his time, Robin Hood appears to only have a couple of good years left in him before the arthritis starts taking his joints and really keeps him from pulling off any trick shots. The rest of the cast is equally aged, with Cate Blanchett being made to look perversely ragged and awful. What possessed Ridley Scott to make this beautiful woman look like a dirt farmer is anyone’s guess.
Maybe I wouldn’t mind how old everyone was if anybody was any good in their roles. Russell Crowe is flavorless in the lead, and his arc feels non-existent. He’s supposed to be a rogue at the beginning, a guy who is out for himself and himself only, but before the end of the first act he’s pretty much being selfless. The script bends over backwards to explain that his deeds – like returning the crown of Richard to England or pretending to be Loxley – are self-serving, but they never come across that way. He seems like a pretty okay guy right from the start, a rogue who is about ten shades nicer than such notably harmless rogues as Han Solo. If Crowe had a sparkle in his eye this could work, but he has the dead eyes of a shark, and he stomps through the movie with the grace of a wounded rhinoceros. Errol Flynn shouldn’t worry about Crowe usurping his Robin Hood crown.
Blanchett is mostly irritating as the bitchy Maid Marion; the film tries to create a screwball relationship between the leads but fails miserably. There’s almost no chemistry between them, and at one point when Marion makes Robin sleep with the dogs you feel everybody is a bit happier (except maybe the dogs). Because this is the 21st century she ends up wielding a sword, and you have to wonder why anybody wanted that development. With everybody’s anachronistic social mores I was surprised she wasn’t agitating for abortion on demand.
Mark Strong appears in his 75th villian role this month; his character, who could be named BadGuyicus for all the subtlety of him, is a traitor to England and a general all-around douchebag. There’s an extended amount of boring-ass political intrigue involving Strong, King John (played with teeth-grinding flamboyance by Oscar Isaac) and a generally befuddled William Hurt as the king’s advisor. Strong is playing both sides (for some reason hostilities with France makes up the main background of this Robin Hood story) and people stand around in castles and courtyards and talk about it and about taxes and about how Lionheart was really a dick and all sorts of stuff that nobody ever wanted to see in a fucking Robin Hood movie. It really does feel like this script was pulled out of storage when the Nottingham script was tossed out, and Helgeland just did a find/replace on all the character and place names. I only wish that he had done some more editing and figured out a way to actually work the Sheriff of Nottingham into the story; Matthew Macfadyen appears in a couple of scenes that feel curiously disconnected from everything else, and he and Crowe have almost no (or maybe none at all – it’s hard to remember, as this generic movie slips away from my memory) scenes together. They’re doing the origin of Robin Hood, but his main antagonist has no place in it.
I will give Robin Hood one thing to its credit – it isn’t as boringly monochromatic as so many of Scott’s recent films. There are actually colors in this one, and the green of the English countryside looks nice. But that, and a half-hearted appreciation for the woefully underutilized Merry Men (a group of personality driven ne’er-do-wells don’t have much chance to stand out in battle scenes featuring hundreds of combatants), are all the praise I can really give this dull, overlong mess of a movie. There are some who might think that my negative opinion is simply because this Robin Hood didn’t deliver the character in a way that I wanted him. That’s partially true – I wanted the character delivered in a way that resembled, beyond his name, the well-known legend – but if this movie was actually decent I might have liked it. If there had been a compelling story or lively performances or a feeling that Ridley Scott was simply burning through unused battle scene storyboards from Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven I might have liked Robin Hood.
This film is the epitome of what’s wrong with Hollywood’s modern prequel mania. It’s a movie that tells no story, that offers no new insight into the characters and that’s all about putting everybody into the positions you’d rather have seen them at in the beginning. The last moments finally see Robin and his Merry Men living in Sherwood Forest, but you have to sit through two and a half hours to get there, and as soon as they are set up the movie goes to credits. There can be no sense of discovery in a movie like this, and there can be no sense of danger. You know the ultimate outcome, so everything that happens is just treading water. Instead of giving us a revisionist take or a showing us a new perspective on an old story, Robin Hood is the equivalent of a movie about James Bond’s first day at the office. Here he is driving to work! Here he is being shown the break room! Here he is setting up his voicemail! And at the end M calls him into her office and says, “Bond, we’re assigning you to field work.” Smash cut to credits.
3 out of 10