The Robin Hood legends give filmmakers a lot to shoot, but Ridley Scott is a rusty marksman. It’s an attempt to put a new spin on the myth: Robin Hood is a prequel to the glory days in the Sherwood Forest. But what’s the point of taking off from common knowledge if you’re going to weigh it down with footnotes? Maybe the exposition would’ve been smoothed out if the material were tackled by the Scott who shot Alien; his pacing was once virtuosic. Here, he starts with a bang—a fireball billowing up from Richard the Lionheart’s 1199 siege of Châlus, a 21st-century cliché invading the 12th—but proceeds to whimper, dawdling from scene to scene as we wait for the swords to swing. But they fail to cut through the crap.
Sherlock Holmes fared well when Guy Ritchie removed the detective’s deerstalker; but Robin seems naked without his tights. In the old days, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor—the Tea Party’s worst nightmare. Coy as the allusion might be, it’s apropos to this adaptation, which muddies things up and makes the “history” denser, but keeps its ideals on a commercially duplicitous level. Robin soapboxes about liberty and rallies against taxation, but the taxes are levied to pay for the Crusades—a war in the Middle East. (Only socialists will be displeased with the film’s shifty politicking: The French are invading England and pilfering indiscriminately. One of the marauders, on the verge of raping a landowner, tells her, “Nobody should own 5,000 acres.” Staliniste! But the filmmakers probably aren’t worried about upsetting socialists; they don’t pay for tickets anyway, right…?) Sequences that should be rousing, if naïve, seem to have been manhandled by clammy appendages. Even the setting is too clammy. These mizzly medieval days can get so dour that I wished the Technicolor sunlight that Errol Flynn basked in would break through the heavy-handed clouds. Some of Jim Mathieson’s photography is quite accomplished—the firelit oranges twinkling on the midnight blues, the beads of water dripping from an arrow, its launch slowed down for us to savor. But Scott’s images no longer look as if seen through a frosty pane of glass, as they did in The Duellists; and they lack the dynamism of Sergei Bodrov’s in Mongol.
Scott is either above pumping testosterone out of his heroes’ pores, or he’s simply short on adrenaline; but he doesn’t replace the he-man cheerleading—à la 300—with a satiric counterpoint (which it probably deserves), or with the lighthearted warmth that made the old swashbucklers glisten. Their forces combined, this director, and the screenwriter, Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Man on Fire), are as light as a hydrogen bomb. But Scott also isn’t the man’s-man filmmaker that Gladiator put him on the market to be; attempting to extract merriment from Robin’s men, he sputters like a shrimp lifting weights. He’s most comfortable when Russell Crowe’s Robin is schmoozing with a lady, Cate Blanchett’s Maid—er, Matron—Marian. These scenes are carried by a sweet and delicate charm, enlivened, from time to time, by Max von Sydow, that prestigious old coot. Marian wears the pants—she even slips into chain mail. (Not that this isn’t incumbent on women in every historical action picture these days—lest we think women’s rights have evolved over the eons.) Crowe, by shrinking into his bulky frame, dropping his eyes, and mumbling, is the right Robin for this conception. His muffled inflections are a peasant’s attempt at eloquence; he isn’t an extraordinary hero, but a likable common man, affected by injustice, and now elevated to a position to fight it. Crowe performs creditably; he’s human. But he’s a real person trapped in a dulled-out version of make-believe. This isn’t the extroverted Robin Hood who forsook the luxuries of high birth to champion those who couldn’t afford to fend off oppression; unlike Tony Stark, these filmmakers’ paladin fails to inspire a romantic grandiosity that is both tacky and fantastically appealing. And so does their movie.