Robin Hood (review)

We Wuz Robbed

How can it be that my geeky little heart has been ripped from my chest and my geeky little soul crushed underfoot like so much spilled popcorn on the floor of the multiplex? That wasn’t supposed to happen. Robin Hood was supposed to be awesome. Did not Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott implicitly promise me awesome with their Gladiator-in-Sherwood-Forest movie? Did they not promise me something potently masculine and powerfully engaging and, you know, at least a little bit pertinent amidst the blood and the guts and the medieval glory?
Fans of the traditional Robin Hood story may be disappointed to find almost none of it here: this is a superhero origin tale, the backstory to how a mere mortal of a man became the “Robin Hood” of legend. That’s not what disappoints me (though I will confess to a twinge of “So, now the movie will start?” when, two hours and 20 minutes in and 30 seconds before the end credits roll, Bad King John finally declares Robin Longstride an outlaw; even in an origin story, perhaps the hero does need to don the cape or get in the Batmobile — or into Sherwood Forest — by at least the beginning of the third act). I’m onboard with the idea of a “realistic,” “historically accurate” telling of the man before the hood.

This ain’t it. Oh, it may be mostly historically accurate — more on that in a minute — but emotionally accurate it is not. There is no passion here, in what is one of the greatest love stories ever told; no anger, in what is supposed to be a tale about injustices righted and tyrants tamed; no longing, no regret, not even more than the tiniest rumors of humor. No nothing. The characters onscreen are barely given a chance to express themselves, so we in turn cannot feel anything along with them.

Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett are two of my favorite actors, and two of the most passionate cinematic presences working today, and even they couldn’t make me feel anything here. I am bafflingly depressed by this.

It starts off promising, and with hints that this hero will be a more complicated man than we might have expected. Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe: State of Play, Body of Lies) is a “common archer” in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston: Clash of the Titans, Edge of Darkness), finally on his way home to England in 1199 from his Crusades in the Holy Land and taking one last opportunity while on the Continent to kick some French butt. After an unfortunate encounter with the king himself one evening in camp, Robin — along with a couple of fellows with familiar names: Little John (Kevin Durand: Legion, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes: ER, Mystery, Alaska), etc — deserts the army, ends up impersonating the dead knight Sir Robert Loxley, and engages in a few other acts that seem rather more expedient than a noble figure of legend might get up to.

Even at this early point, however, there are other, less promising hints of what’s to come: An English soldier, Godfrey (Mark Strong: Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes), is in cahoots with the French king, Philip (Jonathan Zaccai), to further divide the already compromised England (what with its absent king and all) and invade; King Richard’s brother, Prince John (Oscar Isaac: Body of Lies, Che), is storming around in a perpetual snit over matters of succession; the monarchy’s money guy, William Marshall (William Hurt: The Incredible Hulk, Vantage Point), is popping up with concerns over taxation; Marian Loxley (Cate Blanchett: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Ponyo), lady of the Nottingham manor Peper Harow, is contending with a roving band of feral-child thieves who hide in Sherwood Forest.

The Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen: Frost/Nixon, 2007’s Death at a Funeral) and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy: Around the World in 80 Days, The Order) appear, but only so you can later go, “Hey, wait, they didn’t get to do anything!”

There’s a lot going on here. Scriptwriter Brian Helgeland (Green Zone, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) — with story contributions from the team of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (Kung Fu Panda, Bulletproof Monk) — has crammed a television season’s worth of plot and character into one comparatively small movie: this is a 26-hour story, not a two-and-a-half-hour one. And the movie suffers for it. (I’d love to see the 26-episode version, though!) This isn’t supposed to be the kind of tale where villainy is it own explanation — it’s more “serious” than that — but Godfrey is a complete mystery: Who is he? Why did he turn traitor? My minor quibble about historical accuracy — would a “common archer” such as Robin Longstride be literate, as we clearly see he is early in the film? — gets “resolved” in a wildly improbable “surprise” revelation that is ridiculously coincidental and then left entirely unexplored and unexplained. I could go on and on, but perhaps the worst instance of the rush to get through this overly stuffed movie is how it elides right over the romance: Robin, continuing to impersonate Sir Robert with the complicity of his father, Sir Walter (Max Von Sydow: Shutter Island, Rush Hour 3), for the sake of the continuity of manor life, is suddenly in love with Marian, Loxley’s widow (also in on the impersonation scheme), and she with him, when the moment calls for it.

I don’t think it’s too much to expect that I should fall in love with Robin and Marian as a couple, too. It’s not the fault of Crowe and Blanchett that we can’t: they both have moments, separately and together, that suggest the power and the passion that both of them always bring as actors to their performances. But they’re not allowed to create living characters here. There’s simply no room for it.

Lots of movies suffer from the “there’s no there” kind of emptiness. Robin Hood has the opposite problem: there’s too much there there. It looks great, all shot in authentic English locations with a handsome cast and spectacular battle sequences, including Scott’s mounting of a medieval Normandy invasion. But it’s all in aid of nothing: nothing to say, nothing to feel.

Did I mention how crushed I am?

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