For centuries, Robin Hood has been portrayed as a fun-loving rascal, redistributing wealth not as some sort of proto-Marxist statement but just for the sheer pleasure of outfoxing the rich and powerful. Well, enough of that, the folks who made this latest iteration seem to have decided. Let’s examine the real Robin Hood, his iffy historical status notwithstanding. And so we get not an adventure but a grim, serious origin tale, in which Russell Crowe broods and scowls his way into outlaw infamy, looking as if he’d snap Errol Flynn in two for a single ill-timed “Ha ha!” Nobody swings from a rope in this picture; feats of derring-do are replaced by realistic political scheming and backbiting. The sheriff of Nottingham barely even makes an appearance. Little John is a dwarf. (Just kidding, but he’s about half his customary size.) An interesting idea, really—its only serious drawback being that it makes Robin Hood as boring as a chartered accountant.
Granted, the guy can still fire a mean arrow. In this telling, we first meet him as Robin Longstride, an archer in the service of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). Disturbed by his role in the Crusades after getting the stink-eye from a doomed Muslim woman, Robin nonetheless feels honor-bound to return the royal crown to London after Richard is slain; en route, he poaches the identity of a dead knight, Sir Robert Loxley, and winds up being drafted by the knight’s father (Max von Sydow) into continuing the charade and marrying his daughter-in-law, Marion (Cate Blanchett, a rather imposing maid), who’ll otherwise lose all her property to widowhood. Sound exciting so far? Hang on, there’s a meanwhile: Meanwhile, snotty King John (Oscar Isaac) smacks his subjects with blatantly unfair taxes, unaware that his duplicitous underling Godfrey (Mark Strong) is secretly allied with the French and working to foment revolution from within. Yes, it’s all of your favorite fifth-period-history-class naps together in one motion picture!
What’s missing from Robin Hood, which was written by Brian Helgeland (Green Zone, Man on Fire) and directed by Ridley Scott (in his fourth consecutive collaboration with Crowe), is the unapologetic Hollywood grandeur and star power that made Scott and Crowe’s Gladiator such an unexpected triumph. There are battle scenes a-plenty, but all of them are shot in the same motion-flurry style Scott now favors, and we’re never invested in the outcome; Robin and Marion fall in love, but what we see isn’t so much fiery passion as mild flirtation. It’s as if every potentially crowd-pleasing element of the story had been surgically excised … and since the legend of Robin Hood consists of nothing but crowd-pleasing elements, that doesn’t leave the patient a whole lot of options, recovery-wise.
If I haven’t really mentioned the Merry Men, that’s because the movie doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with them, apart from basic introduction and general assembly. Even some of the best-known figures, like Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), are essentially glorified extras. Robin and Little John (Kevin Durand, best known as Martin Keamy on Lost) brawl a little early on, and Friar Tuck (The Full Monty’s Mark Addy) gets a few decent lines, but this plodding saga has no time for ensemble work or comic relief, and it saves its sole instance of wit—a moment almost old-school corny enough to puncture all the strained seriousness that preceded it—for the last few seconds. “And so the legend begins,” grandly proclaims a title card just before the closing credits roll. Next time, try beginning the movie at that point as well.