(by Dustin Putman
When "Robin Hood" was originally announced, it wasn't called "Robin Hood" at all, but "Nottingham," an imaginatively auspicious new take on the old legend that was to be told from the newly sympathetic point-of-view of usual villain of the tale Sheriff of Nottingham. Director Ridley Scott (2008's "Body of Lies") was aboard the project from the start, and so was his go-to muse Russell Crowe (2009's "State of Play"), due, at one time, to play the dual roles of both the title character and the rebellious archer. Now, that's a film that might be worth seeing—a potential breath of fresh air in a time when studios are lazily churning out sequels and needless same-old-same-old reduxes in record numbers. Alas, all of these exciting ideas were scrapped, the character of Nottingham became a peripheral figure in the story, and the project morphed into yet another typical "Robin Hood" incarnation, albeit one that poses also as a prequel and a setup for a sequel. Article continues below
In addition, the finished product verges on self-parody, repeating images and moments from everything from 1998's "Saving Private Ryan" to 2004's "Troy" to 2005's "Kingdom of Heaven" to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. With Scott at the helm and Crowe looking just as he did in 2000's "Gladiator," this could almost be an ill-conceived continuation of that Oscar-winning film. In a motion picture buried by its own lifeless, meandering self-importance, two separate slow-motion shots during the climax of Crowe running toward the camera and roaring dramatically are enough to achieve unintended guffaws from the audience. It's so hammy and overwrought one cannot believe the makers thought it would be taken seriously. Were the story and characters worth believing in and rooting for, perhaps those indulgent bits could be overlooked. As it stands, however, the film is a dead zone for emotion. The viewer looks at the screen, takes it all in, and questions every step of the way why he or she should care whatsoever about any of it.
The plot is a disaster, so long-winded and weirdly complicated that the bulk of the 140-minute running time is saved for simply trying to work its way through the script's machinations. Set in 1199, master archer Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is coming off of fighting in France's ten-year Third Crusades alongside Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) when comrade Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is suddenly killed. As a means of honoring him, Robin sets off for England to give Robert's sword to his elderly father Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) and now-widowed wife Marion (Cate Blanchett). With Robert passed and their property thus threatened, Robin agrees to pose as Marion's husband as a means of saving their land. Meanwhile, the political struggle within England ripens, with callous Prince John (Oscar Isaac) set to overtake the throne and Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) sent from France as a spy to pave the way for their invasion of a land severing into two.
Blandly written by Brian Helgeland (2010's "Green Zone"), "Robin Hood" inspires nothing if not a sense of déjà vu, its every second a borrowed moment from past features that include swords, bows and arrows, castles, hand-to-hand combat, a faux-inspirational climactic speech and a semi-historical context. With nary an original notion in sight, the movie lumbers along with an exposition-heavy narrative that only achieves lift-off during the final twenty minutes—a large-scale battle along the shores of England's Hampton Bay. Before this, it's a lot of boring talk, talk, talk between poorly conceived, barely distinguishable characters who form no connection with the viewer. When action does arise—and it's not often—it comes off as a mere extension of every other scene. Director Ridley Scott brings no momentum to the pacing, no verve and vigor to the story, and no relevance to his muddy political themes.
Russell Crowe phones in his performance as Robin Longstride, mumbling to such a lackadaisical degree it's hard to ever get a handle on what sort of accent he's attempting to pull off. Crowe has never been so lazy onscreen before; he simply doesn't seem to have his heart in it. As Marion, a more modern, butt-whipping take on the fair maiden, Cate Blanchett (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") at least tries to do something with her character, but the writing lets her down big-time. It doesn't help that, by the end, she is being carried around by the big, strong man and acting like a stock love interest. Destined to be typecast as villains, Mark Strong (2010's "Kick-Ass") is nonetheless effective as the sniveling Sir Godfrey. Also making an imprint: Oscar Isaac (2008's "The Life Before Her Eyes") as the big-headed, insensitive Prince John and Lea Seydoux, making her dazzling English-speaking debut, as the in-over-her-head Isabella of Angouleme. By and large, the supporting players are so much more interesting than the leads that the only way to have possibly saved the enterprise is to have gone ahead with the initial "Nottingham" treatment.
No one will deny that "Robin Hood" looks swell, what with the handsome cinematography by John Mathieson (2007's "August Rush") and the sterling production design by Arthur Max (2007's "American Gangster"). The fog-shrouded forests at magic hour; the sea of landing crafts rocking wildly amongst the ocean's choppy waters; the long-shot vistas of England's untouched countryside—the movie is not without some pretty aesthetics. What it is without is a reason to care, a reason to think, and a reason to feel. Conventional and wooden as can be, the film brings about few surprises, biding its time until a conclusion that ends just as the conflicts are heating up and the usual "Robin Hood" yarn would be getting underway. Little is solved, Robin is declared an outlaw of the realm, and everything hinges on this rote picture doing well enough at the box-office to warrant a second offering. Overlong and yet as empty as can be, "Robin Hood" is nearly two and a half hours of wasted opportunities and the sound of settling.