There is exactly one swordfight in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood; it comes in the last scene, and it's a brief, perfunctory number. There's exactly one scene in which Robin Hood robs from the rich to give to the poor, and it's done quickly and forgotten, as if an obligation. Scott is an undeniably skilled filmmaker, but he's all wrong to tell the tale of Robin Hood--at this point in his career, he couldn't make a swashbuckler if his very life depended on it. But when he so steadfastly ignores what we expect when we go to see a movie called Robin Hood, it seems as though he had no interest in making a Robin Hood movie at all; based on what he came up with, he wanted to do a warmed-over retread of other films he'd made (Gladiator , Kingdom of Heaven) or wishes he'd made (Braveheart)--a grim bruiser in chainmail, and nothing more.
The film marks Scott's fifth collaboration with star Russell Crowe, but the Gladiator angle is the one the ads are pushing, and for good reason: they appear to have set out to do to previous Robin Hood films what they did to gladiator movies, i.e. to drain all the life and pleasure out of them. Yes, yes, Jesus, I know, they're "demystifying" it and doing an "origin story" and all that bullshit, but is that any excuse to make a picture as dreary and dull and lifeless as this one? The eschewing of the expected iconography isn't the issue. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, for example, dropped the deerstalker cap and the "Elementary, my dear Watson" business and it still worked--the difference being that its creators went ahead and created something engaging and entertaining anyway. Scott (and screenwriter Brian Helgeland) act as though their audience should be punished for coming to their film and expecting something resembling a good time.
Helgeland's take on the tale begins in England at the turn of the 12th century, as Richard the Lionheart is returning from the Crusades. Sir Robin Longstride (Crowe) is but a humble archer in Richard's army. When Richard is killed en route, Robin and his fellow archers return the crown to England--with Robin masquerading as Sir Robert Loxley in order to fulfill that soldier's dying wish that he return the man's sword to his father (Max von Sydow, pontificating despondently). He soon discovers that the dying fellow left a widow, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett, doing her best); he embarks upon some kind of an arranged/pretend marriage with her. Meanwhile, there is various political wrangling for the monarchy, which should logically go to Prince John (Oscar Isaac), but his villainous advisor, the murderous Godfrey (Mark Strong, from Holmes), is taking the opportunity to pillage the countryside in the name of the crown. When John finally listens to ousted advisor William Marshal (William Hurt) and Godfrey's intentions are revealed, a bone-crunching battle ensues.
The little bits of thievery aren't even subtle; Prince John is played as sniveling, weak brat, in order to serve the exact same function as Joaquin Phoenix's character in Gladiator, while Robin's big pep talk to the troops wants to be the "they'll never take OUR FREEDOM!" speech from Braveheart so badly, you're a little embarrassed for them. Strong's steely-eyed villainy is well-used, and it's nice to see William Hurt working, though who knows why they hired such a skilled actor for such a nowhere role. Blanchett is the best thing in the movie, and her initial flirtations with the somber Crowe have a bit of a kick, even if their relationship is ultimately a dud. But he's a terrible choice to play Robin Hood--his brooding intensity is not a "one size fits all" for any role. Were it not for the fact that he comes with an accent, he'd be no better for the part than Kevin Costner was. There's a sliding scale of expectations, really--as the film begins, you hope it might hit the level of the Curtiz-Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood, but by the end, you're comparing it unfavorably to the nadir of the legend, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (from which it steals about its only crowd-pleasing device, the POV-arrow shot; they trot that out twice). Sure, that was a lousy movie, but at least it had Alan Rickman bitch-queening it up, providing a mild diversion.
Scott's film offers nothing of the sort. From the opening title shot (a slow-mo archery image accompanied by funeral dirge music) through the soggy body (every landscape is foggy, every sky overcast) through the bloodless brutality (one sequence crosscuts between Marian's attempted rape and a building of villagers being burned down), it's the one thing a Robin Hood movie shouldn't be: depressing. When Robin comes to save the day, there's nothing spirited about it--he's just riding his horse around, stabbing and clobbering people gloomily, as if he's whacking weeds.
As the climactic battle rages, we're completely passive; it's the fight of a character we don't recognize, played by an impenetrable actor. Why should we care? Scott's technical mastery and compositions are as striking as ever--it's a film made with precision and skill, but no fire. There's not a second of joy in Robin Hood--not from the characters, not from the filmmakers, and, ultimately, not for the audience. There's one great moment in it, one that makes the audience cheer, and it's at the very end: the Sheriff of Nottingham (basically a nonentity in the film) is posting up the proclamation that Robin is an outlaw, and calls for a hammer and nail as he holds it up to a tree. An arrow whizzes by him, posting up the notice. The crowd I saw it with went insane, and for good reason. This is what they came to see. What was all that other shit?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.