Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Zaki's Review: Robin Hood (2010)

One of my newest pet peeves is Hollywood's recent predilection with revisionist "realistic" takes on stories from classic mythology. We saw it with Wolfang Petersen's Troy in 2004, which retold the ancient Greek story of gods, magic, and men...but left out the gods and the magic. Then King Arthur, directed by Antoine Fuqua, explained to us how Thomas Mallory had gotten it all wrong. Now here's Robin Hood, Ridley Scott's joyless (though not bloodless) new epic that purports to tell the true story of how the famed outlaw donned his emerald tights.

As those who follow these things already know, this is a project that began its life on the development track as Nottingham, a quirky, Wicked-ized juxtaposition of the Hood legend placing the Sheriff of Nottingham as its unlikely protagonist, with a shady, morally-gray Robin Hood flitting in and out of the story. Then Crowe signed on. Then Scott signed on. Then, as Universal watched the dollar sign keep moving further and further to the left, "quirky" gave way to "safe," and Nottingham gave way to...Robin Hood.

Thanks to some helpful title cards at film's start, we learn that the man who will eventually be known as Robin Hood is actually an anonymous archer from the Crusades named Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, in his fifth collab with the director). Following King Richard's death on the battlefield, Longstride strikes out on his own, taking a detour to the town of Nottinghamshire when the dying knight Robert Loxley requests that he inform his family of his passing. Once there, he meets Loxley's father (Max Von Sydow) and widow Marion (Cate Blanchett, no maid she).

Before long, and for reasons far too complicated to get into here, Longstride assumes the identity of the deceased knight and becomes de facto protector of the impoverished township. Meanwhile, we learn that Richard's successor, the vain and untried King John (Oscar Isaac) doesn't mind instituting taxation without representation, and we also learn that his aide Godfrey (Mark Strong) is himself conspiring with the French to usurp the English throne. Soon enough, the two nations are headed toward a collision, with Robin himself galvanizing the people Braveheart-style to join him in defending England.

There's more, of course, but if at any point you're waiting for that whole "Rob from the rich, give to the poor" thing to kick in, keep waiting. In fact, there are so many scenes of palace intrigue, gathered armies, and meaningless supers letting us know where we are that by the end of the third act when Robin is declared an outlaw (or, more specifically, an "outlaaaaaw!"), we're so worn down we can barely be arsed to care, much less be pissed off that we've waited two-and-a-half hours just to see the teaser for a more interesting movie.

Of course, the central problem in trying to tell the real story of Robin Hood is that there was no "real" Robin Hood, so whatever Scott and scenarist Brian Helgeland have come up with is just one myth overwriting another. Thus we have a mildly engaging story about the politics of feudal England, with a character called Robin Hood awkwardly Scotch-taped in. It's like a Superman movie that ditches the flying, tights, and superpowers, and instead tells us about a mild-mannered circus strongman named Sid Superman, just trying to make his way in Depression-era Cleveland.

Now, as one expects from this director, the film is well-cast (mostly, more on this below), the panoramic vistas are beautifully shot, and the battle scenes are choreographed to perfection. However, in trying to give his story some kind of heft and distinguish it from all those other Robin Hoods (perhaps most prominently Kevin Costner's befuddled Robin in 1991's Prince of Thieves), Scott gives the whole thing a funereal seriousness. He squeezes the fun, frivolity, and adventure out of the famous hero, swapping it out for Russell Crowe with his brow knitted so tight it looks like his face will crack if he smiles.

Speaking of Crowe, as good an actor as he is, he's simply too far past the sell-by date to believably play a Robin Hood just beginning his career. With deep crow's feet around his eyes and a grey-specked beard, he shows every one of his 46 years, and ironically enough is now the same age Sean Connery was when he played the character at his twilight in 1976's Robin and Marian.

Ultimately, by the time the Hollywood development process had done its thing on Robin Hood, a potentially interesting take on an old story had become a mercenary attempt by the studio to recapture Scott and Crowe's Gladiator glory from ten years ago -- with Crowe sporting the exact same haircut, to boot! -- potentially birthing a sequel or two in the process. In that sense, as the first salvo in a hoped-for franchise, this Robin Hood is pretty much a non-starter. However, as a case study of the Hollwood assembly line run amok, it's earned a peculiar kind of immortality all its own. C

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