There were so many talented people driving the new Robin Hood movie, and so much obvious expense and energy involved in its making, that it’s somewhat bewildering to notice that what has ended up onscreen is just plain not what you want out of a Robin Hood movie. Well, it ultimately manages to get there, but only in its final scene, and by then – hey! – the movie’s over.
Robin Hood! Yeah! You know, robs from the rich, gives to the poor, with the bow and arrow and the swashbuckling and the Merry Men and the Sheriff of Nottingham and all that? Sure! Sounds fun! And you say Ridley Scott’s directing? Well cool, he’s great at bringing the spectacle. Russell Crowe is playing the main character? Cool, no one is better at bringing grit and grumble to a period piece. That’s a movie I’d want to watch. And that’s all here… kind of. There are actually moments where the movie approaches being what you’d hope a Ridley Scott Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe would be – it’s just that you have to slog through a whole lot of other stuff to get to it.
For those who are interested, the movie is worth a viewing because of the work of two guys – Russell Crowe, obviously, and as the main villain of the piece, Mark Strong (from Scott and Crowe’s underrated Body Of Lies, among other things) – who between them manage to present strong enough poles of generalized good and evil to dually prop up the complicated story and busy spectacle around them. The good-guy/bad-guy star-power is interesting enough to provide Robin Hood’s engine, but if we’re using a car metaphor, then we’d have to call the movie a used Volvo: It runs, but just barely, and you definitely wouldn’t want to take it out for a drive again anytime soon.
The story picks up around the turn of the twelve century in England, and some rather hokey title cards indicate early on that this treatment of the Robin Hood story is going to be more based in history (or pseudo-history) than previous incarnations. That’s probably what we expected from Scott and Crowe, and to a degree from writer Brian Helgeland, a terrific screenwriter who’s had his credit on much better movies – so anyway, so far, so good. This Robin Hood opens on a hagged-out Cate Blanchett as she fends off some spooky masked marauders who are stealing food from her village. I don’t mean to be rude about Cate Blanchett’s looks in this movie, but it’s a point endemic to the flaws of the overall movie – Cate Blanchett isn’t a dull-looking lady and she’s been downright radiant in several other films, so what was the idea behind making her look so mannish here? (Seriously, during her voiceover in the last scene, it could have just as well been Crowe on the mic.) There’s nothing wrong with making Maid Marian a pretty lady, especially considering how many men seem to be lusting over her throughout the course of the movie. Is it meant to be period detail? Do I care? How much period detail does a Robin Hood movie really need? What’s so wrong with a little old-Hollywood glamour?
Where the period detail is more welcome is in the opening battle scene, where an English army led by Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston, looking even more whacked-out than he did in The Proposition) is besieging a castle in France. Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, introduced here as “Robin Longstride,” is an archer, along with his compatriots Allan A’Dayle (the redundantly-named Alan Doyle, looking not unlike Nick Cave) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes, the spitting image of Louis CK – I’m not even kidding, it’s incredibly distracting.) Meanwhile, Little John is introduced as a footsoldier pushing the battering ram – after the battle, Robin and Little John get in a fistfight and earn a grudging respect. As played by the steadily-employed but under-used character actor Kevin Durand (Lost, among many other things), Little John is the movie’s most likable character. His banter and camaraderie with Crowe and with the other two eventual Merry Men are the liveliest parts of an otherwise dour movie – so inexplicably, as a spitball to the face of fun, his screentime is bizarrely limited. Friar Tuck is in the movie too, played by Mark Addy, but he’s not that cool, so it’s not as much of a loss. (Friar Tuck’s bees are more interesting than he is.)
There are three major villains in Robin Hood. One is Mark Strong, who comes off best by far. He’s kind of a dual agent trying to pit England and France against each other, an irrationally cruel and sadistic agent of chaos who is named Godfrey in the movie but I guess is an analogue to Sir Guy of Gisbourne from the original legends. Godfrey’s motivations are never made quite clear in an overly-busy movie, but as I stated above, Mark Strong is consistently effective and charismatic in his hate-ability. It’s tough to find a guy who can convincingly portray an adversary to Russell Crowe, but Mark Strong manages to do it. Less convincing is the movie’s Prince John, played by Oscar Isaac as a cross between The Office’s Ryan Howard and a douchebag. This is definitely one of the least likable screen villains I’ve seen in a long time (although of course that’s kinda the point), but what can you really expect from a character who’s introduced pulling muff hairs from his teeth while arguing with his mother. Did you think that the Sheriff of Nottingham would be the third villain I was referring to? Nope – he appears in a couple scenes as a stumbling, lecherous boozer, played by the talented Matthew Macfadyen (Frost/Nixon) but otherwise is a total non-entity. Can’t see this guy showing up in future installments as a Heath Ledger level of bad guy.
The last villain in Robin Hood is none other than the country of France, and that’s where the movie gets really conceptually problematic. It’s one thing to devote so much screen time to characters bellyaching about taxes – it’s not fun, but it’s kind of part of the Robin Hood story. Prince John’s unfair taxes are part of the reason that Robin Hood and his boys have to start wrecking shit. Still, it totally bogs down the movie. There’s more talk about taxes here than in any two-hour block of FOX News programming. But that’s only dull – it’s not straight-up disingenuous like all the France stuff feels. I’m no particular fan of the French, but it does come off as very bizarre and GWB-era-stupid to have an American-financed production about British history so blatantly and pointlessly paint France as the black-and-white villain. It’s just retarded to have Robin Hood stand and make a climactic speech about “Liberty” and “Justice” when the country he’s talking about is England. He stops just short of saying that “all men are created equal.” That’s some big fake. Sure, things have changed in England since 1200 A.D., but not “all men are created equal” change. Or do they not still have a royal family? Say what you want about France, but they’re the ones who gave us the Statue of Liberty, after all. “Liberty” and “Justice” are intrinsically American values and maybe even eventual French values, but sorry, Robin Hood – they ain’t for the British. Anyway, this wrongheaded England vs. France conflict gives us the biggest battle of the movie, an expensive and involved spectacle that nonetheless manages to disappoint, by visually evoking a laundry list of earlier movies as disparate as Saving Private Ryan, Lord Of The Rings, 300, Troy, Braveheart, and even The Princess Bride!
This is a conceptually twisted-up venture. It’s kind of arrogant, actually, the way it withholds so much of the movie you’d prefer to see, only to tempt you with it at the very end. Robin Hood is, basically, its own prequel. That’s the height of arrogance, because it assumes that another installment is forthcoming, and I have a major hunch that that’s an unlikely prospect. This is one disappointing movie. I can’t believe I’m asking this, but: What would be so bad about a more conventional Robin Hood? Ridley Scott’s telling seems to be physically allergic to giving us a movie where Robin Hood faces off against a Prince John and a Sheriff of Nottingham who are worthy of him, or a movie where his romance with Maid Marian is convincing. It does give us a movie where his Merry Men are interesting and fun, and even allows Russell Crowe to crack a smile and look like he’s having a good time, but it whisks those guys offscreen at the earliest possible moment, every time. Robin Hood gets lost in the spectacle of the final battle scene, whereas film history has showed that it’s always more satisfying to see Robin Hood best his enemies up close and personal. Even the goddamn Kevin Costner movie got that one right. (At least that one had Alan Rickman.) Sorry to say that the new Robin Hood misses almost every mark, and it’s all the more a bummer because it’s a proven fact that Ridley Scott can do so much gloriously better.
P.S. Can someone else who has seen the movie please confirm or deny what the subtext was in the scene where film legend Max Von Sydow tells Robin Hood that he slept well and woke up with “transcendent glory” (or something like that)? Because judging from Robin and Marian’s reaction, it seemed to me that he was talking about having an old-guy morning-boner – and that is definitely not what I want from a Robin Hood movie…