by George Sax
There have been at least 22 English-language movies in the last 100 years that have used the Robin Hood legend in one way or another. Sir Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood is the 23rd film iteration of this basic adventure yarn of social injustice resisted and defeated. The gold standard for all such efforts, and maybe for all swashbuckling extravaganzas, is Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, whose 72nd release anniversary was yesterday. It reinvigorated the brand after a 16-year hiatus with its stylishly brassy charm and vigorous simplicity.
What drew producer Brian Grazer, director Scott, and star Russell Crowe to this durable but somewhat dog-eared material is something we may never know for sure, but among their motives must have been the assumption that they could milk some profits from it. But they’ve brought nothing notably interesting or entertaining to their very expensive version, and it’s not likely anyone is going to call it stylish. It’s substantially more likely their movie is on its way to a box-office bomb designation.
Advance buzzing had it that this is a Robin Hood prequel, but it’s really a sequel without an antecedent. Scott and writer Brian Helgeland have moved events forward a few years from the traditional story “codified” by Victorian author Howard Pyle. They’ve jettisoned a lot of that one: its disaffected, outraged Saxon aristocrat, Robin of Locksley, is now Robin Longstride (Crowe), a yeoman archer in Richard I’s army during one of the English king’s French military campaigns in 1199. Upon the monarch’s death in battle, Robin and several of his fellows escape across the Channel back to England. He takes with him the sword of a dead knight that he promised he would return to the dead man’s father (Max von Sydow) in Nottingham. And there he meets and becomes the defender of the knight’s doughty widow (Cate Blanchett) against the predations of the tax collectors of King John (Oscar Isaac), and then the leader of English barons and commoners in defense of the realm against a traitorous knight (Mark Strong) and a sneaky invasion by the French. The filmmakers have also thrown in a foolishly fanciful story line about the provenance of the rights guaranteed by Magna Carta (which John reluctantly signed 16 years after the setting of the movie’s events).
It all amounts to a rather unwieldy mashup of Pyle’s stuff and some historical hokum. It’s rather ponderous much of the time it’s not just being silly. Robin Hood has an arguably authentic medieval look and it’s certainly big, and it’s also kind of listless for long stretches. Sometimes it comes across as dispirited. Sigourney Weaver has said she thought Scott paid more attention to the props and sets used in Alien than to her and the other actors, and the performances here are uneven and ill-matched. Crowe’s restraint may be intended to show a low-born character’s real nobility, but it calls to mind the late Vincent Canby’s dismissal of a boring performance by Gregory Peck as “diplomatic.” Blanchett has some fire, but she doesn’t seem to ignite much romantic warmth in her scenes with her co-star despite the love interest that the movie posits. Von Sydow is elegantly impressive and Isaac amusingly and enthusiastically emotes as the selfish and ruthless young king, but he almost seems to be in another movie. William Hurt (of all people) and Eileen Atkins, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, exhibit felicitous refinement and touch, but they’re not on enough in this expansive movie.
Part of the long-standing rap on Scott has been that he’s a superior version of the film stylist but not always very good with non-visual concepts and substance. But Robin Hood can be heavy going, and Scott doesn’t seem to have given the material much juice. And there’s no real payoff in the last large-scale battle scene. It’s more busy than exciting.
This last version of Robin Hood that we’re going to see in a long time is a slack, pedestrian epic.
Watch the trailer for Robin Hood
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