Before robbing the rich to give to the poor, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is a random archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). When Lionheart is killed on his way back to reclaim the throne, Robin and his band of merry men choose to desert, and inadvertently come across a plot to murder the already-dead king by the smooth-tongued Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). Through a series of convoluted events, Robin is forced to pose as Sir Loxley, returning the fallen king's crown and bringing a sword to Loxley's father (Max Von Sydow) and his widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett). During his stay in Nottingham, Godfrey's plan kicks into high gear, and Robin finds himself at the center of a brewing battle between the public, the newly-crowned King John (Oscar Isaac), and Godfrey, who is busy ravaging the countryside with the strength of the French army behind him.
One of my biggest worries as a film critic is, while I'm knowledgable about filmmaking and film minutia, I don't possess much scholarly knowledge. Analyzing what I felt worked and didn't work about an individual film I can do, but I'd rarely raise my hand if someone was asking me to analyze a movie within a director's ouevre. Even so, I'm pretty confident in saying that Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is unlike any movie he's tried to make before: a purely and completely commercial one. I feel even more confident in saying that Scott is not particularly good (or, more importantly, personally invested) when it comes to this kind of blockbuster-izing, and the result is a weird, awkward mess that rarely takes a smart step.
Clearly, Scott is no stranger to Hollywood. The man has been making movies for almost 40 years, and many of them "play along", boasting big stars and catchy hooks. Matchstick Men, for instance, a fun, sly film that easily embodies the kind of mass-appeal product that major studios like to make, while at the same time serving as a perfect place for bits that go beyond the twitchy Ocean's Eleven premise. I'm sure Scott took on a project like that and had no trouble making it on his own terms, focusing on the things he felt were important, and at the same time, the film's mainstream appeal just came together naturally. In comparison, I don't think that Robin Hood was flat-out forced onto the director's plate, but the movie shows Scott purposefully playing into (or too tired to fight off) the desires of focus groups and demographic surveys rather than actual audiences.
As what will no doubt be a common complaint, Robin Hood plays more like Robin Hood Begins, taking its cue from endless superhero origin stories to tell the "legend before the legend". It's not that it's a terrible idea in and of itself to show how Robin came to be the man he is, but there's almost nothing here worth knowing. The film often feels like a name-drop session (particularly the introduction of Mark Addy as Friar Tuck) as everyone waits around for something important to happen. To fill in the gaps, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland offer plenty of goofy one-liners between Crowe and Blanchett, which suggests to me that Universal executives have been watching Iron Man more often than Kingdom of Heaven.
The performances are problematic across the board. For starters, Crowe barely seems awake, let alone interested in making the movie. From time to time he moves around to assure the audience he's still alive, but for the most part he's a blank slate, which, of course, is not very interesting. Opposite him, Blanchett, who appears much more savvy about this kind of movie than Crowe, does her best with the material, imbuing Marion with a lot of crowd-pleasing, post-feminist spunk (haha, she said she'd cut his manhood off!), but she can't wrest anything out of Crowe no matter how hard she tries. Really, with a more engaging (or engaged) leading man, Robin Hood might have been mildly successful, but Crowe remains steadfast and stonefaced. In the background, Isaac plays John as a wild, over-the-top caricature (seriously, this guy could be cut out and stuck in a comedy without changing a second of his performance), and William Hurt stands around with a concerned look on his face, as if he's just figured out he doesn't have anything to do. At least Sydow acquits himself nicely with grand old-man silliness.
Above all this, we have Scott's direction, which inspires the mental image of the director playing darts. The movie hops between drama, comedy, and action at a moment's notice, and it's impossible to tell how seriously Scott wants us to care. There's no overall tone here, just a hodgepodge of scenes all wildly doing their own thing. Melodramatic moments such as Robin finding out about his father clash with clunky romantic banter about Robin and Marion sleeping in the same room, and Scott willfully allows things like The Big Speech to occur without any attempt to lessen the corniness of it all. He still shows some panache when it comes to staging the battle scenes, but even then, he's been beaten to the punch by Lord of the Rings and even his own Heaven; there's nothing new in the "epic" department the audience hasn't already seen.
Of course, my audience ate it up, roaring at all the jokes, wincing at the violence, and even applauding at the end, so maybe Scott is smarter than he looks. It's not going to make anyone's worst-of-the-year lists. Still, it feels mildly irresponsible: Robin Hood is rumored to have cost nearly $200 million, and yet it's vividly clear that nobody here cares much about the quality of the final product. The best thing I can say about Robin Hood is that it's consistent: unlike the hit-and-miss Iron Man 2, Robin Hood is half-baked through and through.
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