Review: Robin Hood
The first great disappointment of 2010. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is a failure on so many levels, the most paramount of which is a matter of respect. The film’s creators have taken a beloved legend that has survived for centuries and gutted it, draining every drop of blood from the carcass and rendering it limp and passionless. They show no interest in rendering Robin Hood as a noble or compelling human being, other than in a few moments of lazy expository dialogue, and they’ve accomplished the difficult task of making a hero inconsequential in his own story. They promised a ‘reinvention’ of the mythology, which is fine in principle. But if you’re gonna change the clothes, you’d better keep the soul. And there is no soul to be found in this film.
The structural faults might be less offensive, but they’re just as omnipresent. It takes an hour and a half for our ‘hero’ to even arrive in Nottingham. The narrative up to this point is a hazy conspiracy plot wherein an English commander is helping to facilitate a French invasion, for no discernable reason. Not even money is brought up as an overriding purpose. Even our “hero” shows no real interest for England and common decency other than a poorly staged speech to King Richard while in France, and it isn’t until two hours into the film that we get any cohesive purpose for all of this droll shuffling about. The plot simply has no consistent focus, and Robin Hood himself seems to have almost no role in the convoluted and uninteresting political game threatening his country. And worst of all, we just don’t care. We’re supposed to get the sense that England’s security is at risk, which is pretty big stakes, but we just don’t give a shit.
And where does that leave the core of the Robin Hood legend, the one where he rises from the forest to fight the oppression of the helpless brought on by the ruling class? Pretty much nowhere to be found. The actions of Robin Hood in this film seem to have no purpose, though he occasionally rises to make speeches about tyranny and freedom that exist in a context-free vacuum, as if the writers remembered what this story is supposed to be about, and then threw in a few limp lines to remind us that this guy is supposed to be a hero. But he mostly just shuffles along the road with a band of disinterested chums, gets involved in a cheesy plan to fake a marriage in order to avoid foreclosure on Marion’s estate, and then goes off to battle not against the unjust King John but for him. Where the hell is the real Robin Hood in this movie? Again, you can tinker and reinvent, but if you’re going to name this film Robin Hood, you must stay true to the soul of that myth. Otherwise your audience will lose interest and turn on you. And that’s exactly what happens.
And then they go even further in insulting their audience. With about five minutes left to go, after we’ve been through a joyless march through uninvolving politics and pointless meandering, they give us a glimpse of the real Robin Hood. Just a glimpse. Now we get a sense that the guy is going to be a rebel in the forest, fighting a King John that has broken a promise to enact an early draft of the Magna Carta. It’s a shameless and despicable ploy for a sequel, most offensive because nothing that has come before has effectively built to this point. They took advantage of audience expectations, put them through a dour two-and-a-half hour slog, and then try to appease them into returning for another beating.
All of this said, the structural flaws can at some level be attributed to the tumultuous development process the project endured, going from an anti-hero story focusing on the Sheriff of Nottingham to a schizo project where Crowe plays both him and Robin to the quasi-traditional take it ended up as. That’s a lot of change for coherence to survive. What’s more puzzling, if less egregious, are the technical flaws on display. Ridley Scott has the reputation of a premier auteur, but that armor is showing some concerning cracks. He hasn’t made a great film since Black Hawk Down, and his own good one since was American Gangster. The rest has the disturbing stink of mediocrity, and the towering genius behind Alien and Blade Runner has been absent for two decades. After creating bravura action pieces in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, Scott seems to have developed a penchant for shooting action like Saving Private Ryan on meth. But as realistic and hyper-visceral as the action in Saving Private Ryan was, that film had an expert sense of space and the staging was impeccable, with the most powerful shots being those that took their time. Scott shoots Robin Hood’s combat sequences with very little clarity. Some of the archery sequences are well-done, but the sword-play and large-scale battles are plagued by unfocused photography and rabid jump cuts. It’s as if Ridley let his brother Tony take the reins when the action kicked up, but at least Tony has fun with his chaos. No one involved with Robin Hood seems like they’re having fun.
It’s a real shame that all these problems cripple the film, because there’s an impressive stable of acting talent assembled here. There’s some great work by Mark Strong as sinister turncoat Godfrey and Max von Sydow as an aging nobleman, as well as a surprisingly effective turn by Oscar Isaac as King John, by far the most engaging and interesting performance of the film. Russell Crowe is Russell Crowe and does a fine job with what he’s given, but the problem is that all he’s asked to do is capitalize on the macho-heroes of his past and look tough. Mission accomplished, but that doesn’t constitute a thorough exploration and reimagining of the character. Maybe that’s the reason Crowe has been so cranky when confronted with criticism in recent interviews. He knows he wasn’t given enough to work with, and he knows that he tried his best with what he had.
Robin Hood is trying to be the Batman Begins for the famous outlaw. But its plot and character buildup go in nary an interesting direction, and we’re left with a cheap cliffhanger that doesn’t grow organically from what’s occurred onscreen. Say what you want about the two-dimensional Technicolor adventures of Errol Flynn, at least his film is fun. If you want to go in a more serious direction, you’d better have something serious and substantial on your mind. But for all its dourness and sense of self-importance, this Robin Hood doesn’t have anything important to say. And it sure hell doesn’t entertain, either. You can survive without both, but you damned well better have one.