Directed by Ridley Scott
One of Anglophone culture's most enduring heroes, the role of Robin Hood calls for an actor who's dashing—not just muscular and handsome but flamboyant and fleet of foot, a hunk with dancer's legs that look at home in tights. Crowe, a barrel-chested bruiser who got famous in the first place for pictures like Romper Stomper, L.A. Confidential and Gladiator, is every bit as physical a performer as Fairbanks or Flynn. And as a hurler of hotel courtesy phones, he's long since proved he can match the latter for his wicked, wicked ways. But the burly Aussie lacks the bonhomie, the ease and grace, of his swashbuckling predecessors. Peter Weir's 2003 Master and Commander showed that Crowe has a sense of humor he's hiding somewhere, but if any filmmaker is going to draw this quality out of him again, it's probably not the guy who directed him to an Oscar as Maximus.
In Scott's dull and ponderous Robin Hood, the yeoman bandit exudes aggrievement—and little else. He's sad about, among other things, the father he never knew, a "stonemason and philosopher" who unbeknownst to history wrote the Magna Carta decades in advance. In the movie's dramatic centerpiece, Crowe, an AWOL Crusader, delivers the news of a fellow soldier's death to his widow, Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett). Her grateful father-in-law (Max Von Sydow) asks him to stay for supper, and when Marion tells him to change out of his armor, Crowe replies with a come-on: "I need some help with the chain mail." At that moment, we ought to be feeling the heat between the two (as one astute viewer sitting near me remarked, "I've heard that one before"), but all we can gather instead from our brooding hero, who's facing us but has his back turned to Marion, is how heavy lies his burden; what hard work it is stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Not that there's much larceny happening in this Nottingham. Aside from a single hijacking of a shipment of grain, Crowe and his band of outlaws are neither burglars nor highwaymen. In this "origins" rendition, they're thugs looking for some deserving ass to kick. That would be the Frenchies, who have conspired with an English traitor (Mark Strong) to topple the spineless, newly crowned King of England (Oscar Issac). It can be no kind of spoiler to tell you that, with Robin leading the charge, the English defeat the Normans. But does their march to victory have to be such a slog?
Brian Hegeland's atrocious script contains as many cliches ("Saddle up", "Every Englishman's home is his castle", "Get rid of him") as groaners ("I awoke this morning with a tumescent glow"). But the lion's share of blame for this pompous would-be franchise igniter ought to go to Scott. Otherwise smart cinephiles have been defending the jingoist behind 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Kingdom of Heaven for years, but at least some of them are finally catching on to the fact that his inflated reputation is based mostly on two films—Alien and Blade Runner—that he made thirty years ago. Even Mel Brooks—whose Men in Tights (1993) is worth seeing again—would never pause mid-battle for a slo-mo, not even for a laugh, so that his hero could scream "No!" protractedly.
Still, you can see what must have attracted this Robin Hood's A-list cast and crew to the project. One of Hollywood's favorite properties—as a medieval folk tale, it's never been subject to copyright—the anti-tax/eat-the-rich libertarian premise is neither conservative nor liberal, merely discontented. It can be tweaked—and it has—to fit the politics of ressentiment, right or left, in any era.
That's why so many fine and diverse treatments of this story have been made since cinema's inception. Not just the Fairbanks and the Flynn—though both are must-sees—but also Disney's 1973 animated fable and John Irvin's Robin Hood (1991), a moody, rigorous picture overshadowed by the contemporaneous, bigger-budgeted Costner lemon. Most recently, George Clooney revived the Robin Hood tradition, in the best sense, as a mischievous, thieving protagonist sticking it to the Man in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. (Anderson's soundtrack includes a song from Disney's version.)
What's common among the Hoods in all these films—and in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian (1976) and Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981)—is the hero's love for play. The tale of Robin Hood has never been subversive because he steals from the rich; it's subversive because he enjoys it. He's an everyman, but he's also a trickster, a merry prankster delighting in the beauty of his own capers. As one of his cultural descendants, George Peppard's Hannibal, used to put it on the old A-Team series, "I love it when a plan comes together."
And so at the start of 2010's blockbuster season, with Sir Ridley trying to recoup from you the $237 million of your ticket money he wasted on this subpar remake, here's my suggestion for how you can steal from the rich. Boycott this movie and get thee to Netflix. Because every last one of the Robin Hoods I've mentioned are available, several of them in an instant streaming format.
Opens May 14