Nothing much to Crowe about
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 14, 2010
Dark and polemic, Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East -- in this case, the Crusades -- it's the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who's running the country into the ground. It asks: What's a man of principle to do?
If you said, "Steal from the rich, and give to the poor," you must be thinking of the old Robin Hood. The correct answer here is: "Don't retreat, reload." There are more arrows flying every which way than you've ever seen -- through the face, the neck, the chest, the back. It's a pincushion of a movie.
There is, however, precious little of the socialist stuff that we normally associate with the man in tights in this new, politicized version, which ends precisely where most tellings of the legend begin: with Robin Hood being declared an outlaw and moving to a camp in the woods with Maid Marion, Little John, Friar Tuck and the rest of them. In other words, it's a prequel to the movie that many of us remember. Except for the last five minutes, "Robin Hood" is the story of the radicalization of some guy named Longstride.
Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is a common bowman -- call him Joe the Archer -- in the army of King Richard the Lionheart. Danny Huston, who plays Richard, seems to have taken the name a little too literally, wearing a wig reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion's hair in "The Wizard of Oz."
On the way back from the Crusades, Richard is killed, whereupon Robin ends up carrying Richard's crown back to England and into the hands of Richard's brother, the treacherous, unseasoned Prince John (Oscar Isaac).
But Robin's also on a second delivery run, having agreed to return a sword belonging to a slain nobleman, Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), to Loxley's family in Nottingham. In order to avoid accusations of theft, Robin temporarily assumes Loxley's identity.
When our hero rides up to the Loxley estate, however, he's not only asked to stay by Robert's father, Walter (Max von Sydow), but -- as improbable as it sounds -- to continue the impersonation, living as husband and wife with Robert's hot widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett). Without a man, see, Marion would lose the land when Walter dies.
It's here, as lord of the manor, that Robin's re-education begins. But not, as in every other "Robin Hood," at the hands of the sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), who's relegated to benchwarmer status here. The real bad guy of the picture is Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), the newly crowned King John's chief tax enforcer. While pillaging village after village, he's secretly working as a spy for the French, who hope to take advantage of the civil unrest he's sowing by invading England.
Yeah, it's complicated. And the numerous on-screen titles, which identify the ever-shifting locations -- Barnsdale one minute, Berkhamsted Castle the next -- don't really help. There's so much backroom palace intrigue going on that the movie can start to sound like an episode of "The Sopranos" after a while. "He knows too much," says Godfrey at one point. "Get rid of him." Gruesomely disfigured by one of Robin's arrows, and clad all in black, he looms as large as Darth Vader.
But Mafia and "Star Wars" overtones aren't the only odd ingredients in "Robin Hood," which was written by Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential"). Godfrey's Gestapo tactics are straight out of a Holocaust movie. And the film's climactic battle -- set on a beach beset by a fleet of French troops against whom Robin has rallied the English people -- is weirdly reminiscent of the D-Day scene in "Saving Private Ryan."
So where's the room for Robin Hood -- the derring-do, the dash -- amid all this clutter? Unfortunately, there isn't much. Crowe makes an especially dour Robin. The actor looks grim, puffy and haggard throughout, except for one brief scene in which he strips out of his chain mail -- with the help of Marion -- for a long-overdue bath, revealing a buff if battle-scarred physique. He just doesn't seem to be having that much fun.
Not that the movie is completely without it. Mark Addy makes for a jolly, dipsomaniacal Friar Tuck; Kevin Durand, a goofy and lumbering Little John. And Blanchett's Marion, who takes up arms alongside the best of the men, is a feisty, feminist treat.
But the Robin Hood of myth and moviedom is for the most part AWOL. Why should we have to wait until the last five minutes to see Crowe crack a smile, let alone split an arrow? The film's closing title screen -- which reads "And so the legend begins" -- suggests that if you want to see that movie, you may have to wait for "Robin Hood II."
Contains plentiful violence, sensuality and some sexual humor.