Directed by Ridley Scott
Douglas Fairbanks. Errol Flynn. Sean Connery. John Cleese. These are just a few of the screen legends who, over the years, have portrayed Robin Hood. And that’s why the first question anyone should have for Ridley Scott’s new film about the prince of thieves is whether his leading man, Russell Crowe, even rises to the standards set by Kevin Costner. Ye answer, my countrymen, is not even close.
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?