Russell Crowe's 'Robin Hood' may steal your time, but gives you nothing in return
"Robin Hood" is not a badly-made film.
"Robin Hood" is not an unwatchable movie.
"Robin Hood" is not a painful experience in a theater.
But having said that, I'm not sure "Robin Hood" is a movie anyone needs to see, or that anyone would have any reason to anticipate. It's a near-perfect example of what I've been saying recently about remakes and sequels and reboots and prequels. It is a fascinating miscalculation by smart and talented people, and it's the sort of film that must be frustrating to make, because there's no one way to fix it once things go as wrong as they go here.
I love "Gladiator." Unreservedly. I still think it's one of the best and most audience-minded movies Ridley Scott ever made. I think it's incredibly good at what it does. There's a tone, a style, a dramatic energy that the film gets just right. Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott are equally responsible for that film's success, and there's no way to overstate the importance of Joaquin Phoenix's performance as a very, very bad bad guy.
The thing that "Gladiator" gets right that "Robin Hood" misses completely is a sense of fun. Yes, there's a sense of tension and urgency, and the stakes in "Gladiator" are certainly personal and sad, but there's a sense of fun to the mayhem, a thrill. I think Scott has a tin ear for "fun" a lot of the time. He does somber well. He does moody well. He does atmospheric as well as anyone. "A Good Year," his comedy with Russell Crowe in the lead, is a good example of what happens when Ridley Scott does "funny." Maybe the lumps he took on that one explain the swing towards pure dour, which is what "Robin Hood" is, and it's a shame.
To be fair, the script is by Brian Helgeland, working from an earlier draft by Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, and almost all of the film's problems start with the script. The first question, and the most important one, is "why?" Why was this story told? What does this illuminate about the Robin Hood myth or legend, or what new ideas does it offer up about history? How does this add to the tradition of stories that have been told about this character? When you're spending $200 million or more on a new version of something that's been filmed over and over already, doesn't it seem like you should be adding something? Or at least know what story it is that you're telling?
I don't mean to sound glib, but even typing out the summary for the film bores me. It's all plot mechanics to no real purpose. Robin Longstride (Crowe) is a fighting man who is part of the seemingly-endless Crusade of King Richard (Danny Huston) right up to the moment where Richard falls in battle. Robin decides to head home to England, and he's joined by three more men equally tired of the fighting, Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), and Little John (Kevin Durand). On the road home, they witness a massacre led by the moustache-twirling bad guy Godfrey (Mark Strong) and they end up taking on the identity of the men who were killed, leading them to the home of Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow). For the flimsiest of reasons, Robin goes on playing the part of Sir Walter's dead son, which means he has to pose as the husband of Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett).
Then a bunch of people fight on a beach. The end.
The entire film exists to build to a moment at the very end, when everyone's standing around in the heart of Sherwood Forest, ready to go rob from the rich, meaning the entire film is meant to get us to the point where the "real" story of Robin Hood begins. I'm sick to death of seeing "the story behind the story," particularly when "the story behind the story" is nowhere near as compelling as the story itself. I guarantee no one would know the name of Robin Hood today if this were the story that were originally told. It's a muddled bag of shifting motivations, murky political intrigue, and large-scale battles with no dramatic thrust at all. Ridley Scott can shoot a battle, no doubt about it, but until I saw this film, I didn't realize how crushingly boring a beautifully-staged battle sequence could be if you don't care about the outcome or any of the characters wrapped up in it.
There are good actors drowning in this quicksand, like Oscar Isaac, who plays Prince John. He works hard to make this John into a figure of some ambiguity, but he's undone by the way the script handles him. Likewise, the Merry Men are all engaging performers with a natural chemistry as a group, and yet they're basically background and given no chance to do anything especially memorable. Mark Addy's Friar Tuck is probably the worst example of a character with no rudder whatsoever. Mark Strong gives one of the first truly uninteresting performances of his career here, hampered by a character who is bad simply for the sake of being bad, but who has so little to do onscreen other than randomly kill extras that it almost seems like a waste of letters to give him a name.
Russell Crowe's best performances are both physical and internal, a combination of his brawler's exterior and a keen intelligence behind his eyes. He is at his best when he has a clear goal in a film and pursues it at all costs. Here, because Robin Longstride has such a confused central purpose in the film, Crowe is absolutely adrift. His best moments are with Cate Blanchett, but that's just because the two of them are such pros. Their "love story" is perfunctory and nonsensical, totally unmotivated, and by the time she shows up on the beach during the final battle wearing armor for some reason, I realized that no one on the film had any idea why anything was happening. It is a collection of moments, beats that they think should be in the film without any connective tissue justifying anything you see.
Tech credits on the film are as good as money can be, and utterly squandered. "Robin Hood" is a soulless, empty, noisy dud, and in the future, when they hold a war crimes tribunal to prosecute all the studio heads of our era for the way they are shamelessly cannibalizing our culture without contributing anything new, "Robin Hood" will make a lovely bit of evidence for the prosecution. The art of storytelling depends on one skill in particular... knowing when to start and story and when to end it. And in an age of endless prequels adding backstory no one ever asked for, the only thing this Robin Hood is stealing is the audience's time.
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