“Robin Hood” is a fine movie, great summer entertainment. The only problems I have with it are its title and entire premise.
Russell Crowe, that great hulk of decency and duty, plays a soldier in King Richard’s army. They have been to Jerusalem, and are on their way home to England, sacking and plundering as they go. Danny Huston plays Richard as a king who was once great, but has no illusions about what he has become. Soldiers (and their families) tend to think better of their commander-in-chief at the beginning of a Crusade than at the end. He seems to be hoping he will die before he returns to England and must deal with an impoverished, war-torn country in peacetime. That wish is granted, and Crowe finds himself impersonating a knight and escorting the crown back to Richard’s poor mother (Eileen Atkins) and psychotic brother, the new King John (Oscar Isaac, who is clearly taking his cues from Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in “Gladiator.” That’s not a bad thing.)
Crowe is also must carry out a dying man’s final request; to carry his sword back to his father, played by Max Von Sydow. Cate Blanchett is his daughter-in-law, hastily married to his son right before he went off to fight in the Crusades. Blanchett is a hard woman; her days are spent fighting off orphan marauders who live in the woods and begging/haranguing the local parish to let the villagers use the Church’s seed to plant their fields. Times are tough in Nottingham, and elsewhere.
To make matters worse, King John has a traitor for a best friend. Mark Strong, playing his third villain in the last five months (he was the mobster in “Kick-Ass” and the sorcerer in “Sherlock Holmes”) is in league with the King of France, and is stirring up dissension amongst the king’s noblemen. This isn’t hard, since John is such an arrogant jackass to begin with. Crowe finds himself tasked with unifying England and fighting off the French, with the help of his merry men and the guidance of William Hurt, who plays the wise and shrewd William Marshall.
This is all well and good. It makes for an entertaining sword-and-shield story, a successful breeding of “Lord of the Rings” and “Gladiator.” Director Ridley Scott is remarkably competent at handling multiple characters and storylines; we get a strong sense of political intrigue, and wheels turning wheels. He also, famously, handles epic battle scenes well; the ones in “Robin Hood” are clear and violently poetic. As in “Gladiator” (also directed by Scott) and “Braveheart,” the dialogue is littered with lightly veiled references to democracy and human rights, making an archaic culture and political system feel progressive and modern. There’s not much chemistry between Blanchett and Crowe, and their romance didn’t really work for me, but that’s a small beef for a movie like this. It’s an action/adventure flick, not a romantic comedy.
The problem is that, in my mind, this isn’t a Robin Hood story, or at least not a very good one. The best depictions (and there have been many) onscreen and in literature of the Robin Hood legend always have one thing in common: they depict Robin and his merry men as, well, merry. There is always a sparkle in Robin’s eye. This is not superfluous to the story; it makes the story what it is. The heart of the Robin Hood legend is that there is joy in fighting injustice; there is beauty in speaking truth to power and cheer in caring for the poor and the oppressed. In the best tellings, Robin takes life-and-death risks with an unmistakable sense of gaiety and fun, perhaps knowing that even if he dies, he wins in the end. This element is completely missing from Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s “Robin Hood.” I’m trying to remember a single moment in this film when Crowe cracks a smile. There aren’t many. He goes about his business dutifully, honorably, but not joyfully. He is always carrying a heavy burden, and it weighs on him. Crowe is an actor of great gravity and quiet dignity; he is never playful or merry. It’s not just that there is no twinkle in his eye; it’s that it’s hard to imagine that twinkle ever being there. Russell Crowe makes a great medieval warrior; he is horribly miscast as the Robin Hood of legend and song.
Recommended if you just want an exciting summer adventure movie.
Not Recommended if you care about the story, myth and legend of Robin Hood