[14 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Myths and legends endure because of their familiarity. As they are passed down from generation to generation, the new audience discovers what the keepers of the folklore flame always knew - that there was something special about the story to begin with. Sure, the times mandate a few changes here and there, and someone is always going to come along and try to “reinvent” it, but for the most part, those who entertain its use stick to what endures - everyone except for director Ridley Scott and his star Russell Crowe, that is. They have managed to make a Robin Hood film that has nothing to do with Sherwood Forest, little to do with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and just the slightest mention of “merry” men. If it wasn’t for the names and a love interest named Marion, this could be any 12th century solider fighting for England the glory of Richard the Lionhearted.
Yes, our origin story has Robin Longstride as one of the King’s chief archers, as well as an outspoken member of the brigade. He is not afraid to tell His Majesty the truth. When Richard is killed, Robin assumes the identity of one of the knights, travels to Nottingham to deliver a deathbed promise, and agrees to help the aging Sir Walter Loxley save his land for his daughter, Marion.
In the meantime, a confidant of the crown named Godfrey double crosses his country, selling out England to the French in order t (insert random explanation here). Along the way, he raids individual villages, milking the peasant population out of any money they may have. This begins a rebellion against sitting King John, who decides to confront the citizenry head on. Once he learns of Godfrey’s scheme, he teams up with Robin, many of the local land barons, and marches to the seashore. There, they take on the enemy in an epic battle complete with boats, broadswords, and lots of bloodshed.
Robin Hood makes the mistake that many cinematic “reinventions” do - it completely forgets why it’s telling this particular tale in the first place. We want to see the bad-ass with the bow and arrow, the daring dandy who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. If we wanted to see some sorry sod who broods and beleaguers the need for inherent rights ad nauseum, we’d head over to ACLU meeting.
We want the well-known beats - the friendly fight with Little John, the wooing of MAID Marion, the archery competition (complete with arrowhead on top of arrowhead action) and the constant call for a redistribution of wealth. We don’t need more castle keep intrigue, John doing his best to make mom Eleanor of Aquitaine sorry she every gave birth to his whiny butt. Between his fey coo-cooing and incessant kvetching about the better loved Richard, he’s like Tom Smothers without the sense of humor.
Yet this is all Ridley Scott has to offer. Pretty pictures and period detail dressing up Brian Helgeland’s heavy-handed script. Sure, this project got jostled around from idea to idea, shapeshifting multiple times along the way, and yet this was the best they could do - a dead King, a ruse for land, a balding backstabber and an attempt at drafting the Magna Carta (or a close approximation thereof)? At the very least, we could have Robin doing a bit of the old “fleece the nobility” bit and make us happy.
But Scott’s Hood isn’t out for fun. Like many of the movies he’s made in the last few years, it’s more journeymen than genius. This is the guy who gave us definitive masterworks like Alien and Blade Runner. Heck, he almost won an Oscar for Gladiator. To reduce your reputation to keeping a middle-aged mound like Russell Crowe happy defies reason. Perhaps the paychecks ARE too large to ignore.
In fact, the one word you’d never think Ridley Scott would resort to is “autopilot”. Another is “redundant” - and yet that’s exactly what Robin Hood feels like. It’s a ponderous peplum ported over to the medieval times. All that’s missing are Steve Reeves and voluptuous Italian actresses with lots of eyeliner. When you watch what Scott is doing here, you are instantly reminded of far better films - but should one of them really be thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail? During the raid on a French castle, the viewer keeps waiting for a solider to peek over and tell King Richard that his mother was a hamster and his father smelled of elderberries.
Even worse, efforts like 300 and The Lord of the Rings have rendered such perfunctory period pieces obsolete. What is missing here is the sense of the epic, of a scope that moves beyond gorgeous countryside to something on an emotional and/or cosmic level. What we want is magic. We want a sense of spectacle. We want the downtrodden to celebrate their savoir and watch the bad guys pay for their misdeeds. If Mark Strong weren’t called on to be the cad here (he is rapidly becoming typecast as the dark, sinister villain), we’d have little to hiss about. Sadly, just as he is being as nasty as he wants to be, Scott scuttles him off screen so Crowe can command more running time.
In the past, Scott was criticized for giving his films a flashy, ad agency sensibility (he got his start in commercials). Apparently, said disapproval stuck, and he has been moving slowly away from the style ever since. Oddly enough, a movie like Robin Hood needs a little of the Legend touch. It needs more magic, more majesty, less dirt and grit and more sense of swashbuckling and derring-do. Do we want another repeat of the Kevin Costner fiasco from a few years back? Hell no. Do we expect more from the man who’s shown such a propensity to amaze before? Abso-friggin’-lutely.
As crowd-pleasers go, it’s anemic and underwhelming. As history and heritage, it’s even worse. Robin Hood takes everything we loved about the good two shoes knave with the affinity for England’s little people and knifes him directly in the solar plexus. Some will buy into its false bravado, expecting a Summer season effort to percolate with same. But it will be movie-going muscle memory they are responding to, not anything offered on screen.