Writhe, and writhe again for two and a half hours, as a promising version of the Robin Hood legend becomes a silly bad memory. I found this inscription on the underside of a paving stone outside the movie theater at 2:30 Friday morning. Why was I prying up paving stones? I like to think of it as a heroic instinct.
Let me make a rare spoiler warning here. If you want to take this movie seriously, or preserve any secrets about the plot, etc., this review will spoil that for you, so don't read it. That still might not help you take it seriously, but them's the breaks. Multiple movie spoilers lie ahead.
The Ridley Scott Robin Hood starts promisingly enough, with Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride, an archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston, off-center and great as usual). When an argument between Robin and Little John (Kevin Durand, very good) over a shell game becomes a general fistfight, the King breaks it up and quizzes the combatants about what started it. Our hero Robin takes the occasion to file a complaint against Richard's whole Crusade, protesting a slaughter of innocent Muslims ordered by the King.
Unsurprisingly, though the King has asked him to speak freely, this open defiance lands Robin and some friends in the stocks, as the army sacks one last French castle before heading home to England. This happens to be the battle during which the King is finally killed, which is good luck for Robin and the crew, who break out during the confusion and look for their chance to make it home. It's bad news, however, for King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccaï, fun), who's been plotting to assassinate Richard and invade England. He's already got a plot in motion with Godfrey (Mark Strong of Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass, pretty good), an intimate of Richard's brother and heir, Prince John, to execute Richard and his company in a forest en route home across the Channel.
His already being dead means that our man Godfrey and company instead kill Sir Robert Loxley and his men, who are returning with the crown of the fallen monarch. Then Robin and his men stumble upon the aftermath of that ambush with their own ambush. The dying Loxley implores Robin to return his family sword to Nottingham and his father, Sir Walter Loxley. The insipidity--I mean "inscription"--on the sword is somehow familiar to Robin, which, in a Ridley Scott movie, means burnt-looking flashbacks. ("It means, 'Never give up,'" explains Robin, but Churchill is yet to be born, so we couldn't just say that.)
With so many ambushes ambushing each other, it's weird that Robin and his men have a long colloquy standing over the dead bodies, with nobody apparently looking out for the next ambush. Luckily, one is not forthcoming, so Robin and his men decide to impersonate the dead English knights returning the crown to get a ride home.
In theory, this could have been a worthy prequel to the more usual Robin Hood tale. The plot is pretty neat, collecting and attempting to answer most convincingly many questions about the Robin Hood story and the history of the times during which he might have existed. But aside from some solid action, it's pretty boring, flat and politically correct beyond belief. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew McFadyen, Robert the Bruce from Braveheart), always among the most hissable villains of the tale, is a drunken footnote, but shouldn't have been. There's very little of Sherwood Forest. There's very little fun. Even Friar Tuck is practically written out. And Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett in full Katharine Hepburn mode), from a believable brave and loyal widow farmer in Nottingham, is turned into a proto-feminist Batman predecessor who secretly fights crime in custom armor with a Lord of the Flies-style gang on Shetland ponies. This is not a joke or a lie, just the sorry facts.
Many of the plot threads have fun-killing consequences like this, unfortunately. Despite admirable acting from Max Von Sydow as Sir Walter, he can't elevate the dippy past-life regression he practices to lend Robin a rebel backstory. Eileen Atkins is strong as Eleanor of Aquitaine, but her role is self-contained and lends little support to the Robin Hood plot. Oscar Isaac is pretty convincing as Prince John, but Godfrey hogs the plot's villainy to the detriment of its portrayal. William Hurt is completely wasted.
Overall, this is not a good version of the Robin Hood legend. Even though the historical conjectures and context it presents may be interesting and clever, and might have served a better movie well, the execution here is sloppy and, at worst, quite silly or even stupid. The musical score, by Marc Streitenfeld, is bad and forgettable. The Kevin Costner version is more fun. The Errol Flynn version is more fun. Literally thousands of book versions are more fun. This movie is just kind of lame and at sea. There is a visually interesting oil-painting pop-art end-credits montage, which some in my fleeing audience paused to view.
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