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With: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, Mark Addy, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Douglas Hodge, Léa Seydoux
Written by: Brian Helgeland, based on a story by Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content
Running Time: 140
Date: 12/05/2010

Robin Hood (2010)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Un-Merry Men

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood has the task of improving on the last Robin Hood movie, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). That one having been one of the worst movies I ever saw in a theater, Scott accomplishes this task spectacularly. Unfortunately, Scott has failed to actually make a good movie. Whereas Costner's film was laughably bad, Scott's film is just dull.

As portrayed in his two most enduring films, Robin Hood (1922) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), this hero is usually a dashing, daring, devil-may-care bandit, a lovable scoundrel who enjoys nothing more than to flaunt it in the face of fat authority figures. He's also something of an acrobat, who swings and drops from trees as often as he shoots his deadly accurate arrows. In Scott's version, he's a brooding soldier who -- maybe thee or four times in 2-1/2 hours -- attempts some wisecracks and a rousing speech or two. Mostly he broods.

All those stories that we know and love, such as Robin Hood donning a disguise to enter an archery contest, are not here. Scott, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and co-story writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris somehow thought it would be fun to do the Robin Hood origin story, even though any fanboy could tell you that the origin is absolutely the most boring part of any superhero series. It's not fun. In fact, the movie leaves off just as Robin Hood, Maid Marion and the Merry Men are setting up camp in Sherwood Forest, just about to start chiseling away at the evil King John and his henchmen with their small, clever attacks. That part looked like it was going to be fun, but unfortunately the credits start rolling.

Instead, the movie begins during the Crusades, with King Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston) leading his weary men. They're pretty much finished and are working their way back to England, stopping here and there to plunder a castle or two for supplies. Robin Hood, here called Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), is merely one of the King's archers. Scott and Helgeland have deliberately made a major change in the Robin Hood legend, so without giving anything away, everything goes south, and Robin decides to leave with a band of supporters: Little John (Kevin Durand), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes).

They soon have a mission: Robin promises a dying man that he will return a sword to the man's father, who happens to live in Nottingham. He meets the man's father (Max von Sydow) and the man's widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett), and is asked to stay on to pose as the dead man (for reasons having to do with property ownership). There, things start to get really glum as Robin learns all about his father and his heritage, and the French start to attack and there are speeches and battles and more battles. This Robin Hood is no longer a swashbuckling adventure story; it's yet another somber war movie. It's the kind of movie that opens with some text describing the time and place, and then ends with a character narrating (even though no other narration has been used at any other point in the film).

As I sat there trying to keep myself awake and watching thousands of CG arrows soar across the screen, I couldn't help thinking of John Woo's Red Cliff, with its beautifully clear, rousing battle sequences. Scott's battle sequences -- which are almost always universally praised -- are gray, muddy, grungy, shaky and choppy. They have no sense of clarity or space or sequence. The shots never build up to anything and there are certainly no thrills. I felt nothing during them except the passing of time.

At the very least, Crowe does make a pretty good Robin. Even at his most sullen, he's still fairly commanding and very watchable, especially in the movie's one and only "robbing from the rich to give to the poor" sequence. ("What has 18 legs and isn't going anywhere?" Cool!) But unfortunately, the movie sinks like a stone when he's not around. Mark Strong is on hand as a villain named Godfrey -- new to the Robin Hood legend -- a French/English double agent who plays one army against the other. Strong does the same one-dimensional strutting and glaring he gave us in both The Young Victoria and Sherlock Holmes. But even worse is Oscar Isaac as King John; he reminded me of Joaquin Phoenix's oddly overpraised performance in Gladiator; John is very nearly a cartoon, with every move exaggerated past all reality, bugging out his eyes and making sure to let some spittle fly with every line delivery.

Otherwise, Matthew Macfadyen is barely onscreen as the Sheriff of Nottingham, William Hurt manages not to look bored as an advisor to the king, and Mark Addy makes a pretty terrific Friar Tuck, who, in a better movie, could have been a delightful scene stealer. Finally, for some reason there are some "Lord of the Flies"-type kids who keep attacking Marion's farm while wearing spooky mud masks, and Marion eventually enlists them to help fight in the war. Of all the odd ideas floating around during the making of this movie, that one was surely the oddest.

Aside from all this nonsense, the movie's major misstep was in assuming that we'd like to know all of the emotional layers and backstory of the legend of Robin Hood, rather than just giving us the legend. There's a reason he's a legend (and not a real person); he serves a certain purpose. He's exciting, and he gives us hope that little guys can stand up against big guys, be they churches, governments or corporations. He doesn't have to be a real, three-dimensional person. He's a symbol. By taking away the symbol and making the character "deeper," the filmmakers have destroyed its magic. And worse, they have taken away the joy.

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