As you meander through the dense, dark forest of high-minded murk that is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, here are a few things that you won’t be seeing: a scene in which Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) steals from the rich and gives to the poor. A scene in which he dons a disguise to win an archery contest, or gets Friar Tuck to carry him across a stream, or leaves the Sheriff of Nottingham fulminating in his boots. A moment when Robin’s men behave in a way that could remotely be described as ”merry.” A rousing sword fight. A pinch of lightness, frivolity, comedy, adventure, or — wait, I think this is the word I’m searching for — fun.
The new Robin Hood, you see, is an origin story, a prequel to the legend, which is why it contains virtually none of the famous and invigorating scamp-of-the-woods mythology. Now, I’m all for a new take on an old story. But Scott and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, work so mightily to turn Robin ? into a stolidly noble, pre-notorious version of himself that they forget to make him at all magical. Rousing. A hero of the glen. The filmmakers drown us in ”realism,” with a cast of actors mangy enough to look like entrants in a medieval drinking contest. And the way Crowe plays Robin, which is heavily, without ever once modulating his impassive, minimalist squint, he’s far too even-keeled to inspire us. He’s like the hero of Gladiator, only without a vengeful mission — or a slave to fight.
The movie works hard to set up Robin as a valiant outsider. He starts off as an archer in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), and amid much generic slaughter, the movie calls on him to give an anachronistic speech about how a Crusade against Muslims is not something that God would approve of. He then travels all the way to Nottingham to report the death of his comrade Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) — quite a trek for a Good Samaritan impulse.
Once there, Robin joins the Loxley clan, but Scott, having dosed us with an early case of battle fatigue, never finds a dramatic tone. Max von Sydow, as the grizzled Walter Loxley, gives his rare annoying performance; he tries to be knowing but just comes off as coyly belligerent. And Cate Blanchett, as Lady Marion (the widow of Sir Robert), comports herself with such proud, strong-as-any-man severity that there’s no softness or romance to her. When she helps Robin off with his chain mail, it’s supposed to be erotic, but the two might as well be making a bookcase. The scene builds to a carefully angled image of Robin with his shirt off, and about all we can think, looking at Crowe’s muscular but still doughy torso, is that he must have worked out for months for this token beefcake shot.
Forget valor and excitement. Scott’s Robin Hood is all about backstory: great teeming gobs of royal-court strategizing and double-crossing oppression. The movie features a newly crowned monarch, the weakling tyrant King John (Oscar Isaac), who is mad for taxes. He’s also short enough to have the 12th-century version of a Napoleon complex, which he’s too obvious in his treachery to hide. His right-hand man, the more devious Godfrey, is a saboteur who is secretly collaborating with King Philip of France. Mark Strong, as Godfrey, is creepy, like a feral, chrome-domed Steve Carell, with a stitched scar next to his mouth (where Robin shot him with an arrow). But that scar is just about the only thing that connects Robin to all the by-the-numbers political chicanery.
Scott and Crowe made a great movie out of Gladiator, tapping deep into the showbiz masculine bravura of ancient-world Hollywood spectaculars. In Robin Hood, Scott tries to go deep again, but in a misguided way — he thinks he’s making a pop-medieval Saving Private Robin. The battles are grainy and ”existential,” but what they aren’t is thrilling. They’re surging crowd scenes with streams of arrows and flecks of blood, and Crowe, slashing his way through them, is a glorified extra. He’s so grimly possessed with purpose that he’s a bore, and so is the movie. C-