I would ask the same question about Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” that I asked about Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”: Was this trip really necessary?
Not that “Robin Hood,” opening Friday, is as much of a bollocks as “Alice” was; not even close. It’s a perfectly serviceable action-adventure when it puts its mind to it. But by the time it does, viewers may already have given up hope that it will ever actually bestir itself from its term-paper-like approach to the state of the 12th-century British monarchy.
Indeed, for a Russell Crowe film, this film is distinctly short of, well, Russell Crowe. He seems to disappear for about an hour in the middle. The way Brian Helgeland has written the title character, Robin bears a distinct resemblance to Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone films. Except he says a little more and does a little less.
We all know the Robin Hood legend, as passed down in the Errol Flynn and even the Kevin Costner versions of the story. Robin was a local lad in Nottingham who became an outlaw when Prince John’s men killed his father and declared him an outlaw for hunting the king’s venison. Eventually, he met Little John (trying to cross a log over a stream), Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and the rest, and bonded them into his band of Merry Men. They robbed the rich, gave to the poor and shook off the shackles of Prince John’s tyranny just in time for the return of King Richard from the Crusades. Throw in the archery match, his wooing Maid Marian away from John, the evil sheriff of Nottingham and you’ve pretty much got it covered.
But Helgeland and Scott want to make a little history of their own. So this “Robin Hood” is constructed as a prequel (which no doubt will lead to a sequel, considering that this film ends with the title card, “And so the legend begins”). So Robin Longstride here is an archer in King Richard’s army, battling the French on the way back from the Holy Land.
When Richard is killed in battle, Robin and his buddies John, Will and Allan A’Dayle (played, respectively by Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes and Alan Doyle) desert and head back to England to beat the coastline rush hour. But they happen upon an ambush – by a Brit named Sir Godfrey (ubiquitous heavy Mark Strong of “Kick-Ass” and “Sherlock Holmes,” most recently) – intended for Richard, engineered by King Phillip of France.
After chasing Godfrey off, Robin promises a dying Sir Robert Loxley to return his sword to his father, Sir Walter. Robin and his men put on the armor of the murdered knights and head back to England to deliver Richard’s crown to John. Once there, Robin heads for Nottingham, home of Sir Robert, where he meets the dead man’s wife, Marian (Cate Blanchett), and the blind Sir Walter (Max von Sydow).
Between the opening battle against the French – complete with boiling oil, crossbows and the like – and the battle for Nottingham, there’s a slack hour of chatter and history lessons that feature now-King John (Oscar Isaac), his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), William Marshall (Willliam Hurt), Godfrey – and very little else. Oh, Robin and Marian have their scenes, but they’re low-key exchanges – the getting-to-know-you period – with Robin spending as much time with Sir Walter as with Marian.
Ultimately, the big conflict in this film isn’t Robin Hood standing up for what’s right – it’s England, perched on the brink of civil war, trying to resolve its internal differences to take on the French. But the battle scenes seem perfunctory, almost rote, as though Scott was choosing from a lot of left-over second-unit footage.
Those sequences still have a certain kinetic power but seem like an afterthought. It’s as if what Scott really wanted to do was make a movie about the signing of the Magna Carta, then got cold feet and put in the action set-pieces.
Crowe is still a fascinating actor to watch, someone whose thoughts are always visible. Which is good because Robin doesn’t have much to say here. He and Blanchett have a pleasing friction that eventually turns from antipathy to romance. But, again, that doesn’t seem to be what was uppermost in Scott’s mind.
In the past, I’ve frequently felt that Scott’s films were a triumph of style over substance. But “Robin Hood” is so overburdened with substance that the style is muted, almost invisible at times. And no one wants a summer blockbuster that feels like a history lesson.