Like it or not, along comes another cinematic adaptation of the oft-told tale of Robin Hood: the weary middle-aged archer who returns from the doomed Third Crusade looking only to lie his way into anonymity with some gold he stole from the bier carrying the crown of dead king Richard I, but finds himself instead helping the petulant new King John and the rebellious northern barons make peace long enough to turn back the army of Philip II of France, while comforting the prickly wife and blind father of the dead nobleman Robert Loxley, and learning that own long-dead father was a great democratic thinker, leading this simple archer to draft his own version of the Magna Carta, 16 years ahead of schedule. What, that's not the version of the story you remember?
Officially, this new Robin Hood, written by Brian Helgeland and directed by Ridley Scott, is a "prequel" to the more widely-known legend of the freespirited Saxon outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor in the Nottinghamshire countryside, matching wits with the rapacious sheriff of Nottingham, which I guess is the filmmakers' attempt to justify returning to this extremely worn-out well. The logic holds up for all of ten or fifteen seconds, until you remember that pretty much every major previous film of the story opens before Robin Hood begins his career of outlawry: just off the top of my head, the 1922 Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks, the magnificent 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the dismally campy - but, alas, culturally significant - 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves each opens with the story of how Robin Hood and his Merrie Men came into existence, which rather makes this 2010 Robin Hood not so much a "prequel" as a "first act stretched out to 140 unfathomably punishing minutes". Ending with the snotty card "And so the legend begins", just to rub it in a bit that whatever the hell we just watched, it sure wasn't legendary. Legendarily boring, maybe.
For no reason that makes much sense, Scott and company have seen fit to remove everything that makes Robin Hood especially Robin Hood-ey, and instead to rework the director's 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator, beginning with the presence of Russell Crowe, on to the wholesale recreation of several specific plot beats. They're even stylistically similar, which means in effect that both films pilfer shamelessly from the Saving Private Ryan playbook: in Robin Hood's case, this is best seen in a sequence that borrows a great many specific shots from the earlier film's D-Day invasion sequence, and when you recall that Robin Hood takes place in 1199, with bows and arrows, while Saving Private Ryan takes place in 1944, with firearms, you're only starting to chip away at the reasons that this is a terrible, terrible idea.
But back to the idea of a Robin Hood-less Robin Hood: in virtually every incarnation all the way back to the medieval ballads where we first hear of the bandit, he's a spirit of adventure and swashbuckling fun. Sadly, Ridley Scott is working in an age where entertainment has been weirdly mutated, so that unremitting grimness is valued as serious and "edgy", that catch-all word which means whatever the marketing department wants it to mean. Half the time, it just means "nasty and bleak", which mostly describes this Robin Hood, a film as mirthless as it possibly could be, where even the chaotically kinetic action scenes have the veneer of depression hanging over them. There's nothing transporting about the movie at all: it is handsomely-mounted, true, but then the whole thing is blanketed with a cloud of dark cinematography, itself handsome but impenetrable, as though Scott instructed DP John Mathieson to do whatever he could to hide the excellent production design by Arthur Max and costumes by Janty Yates, for fear that the audience might accidentally enjoy looking at them.
The film is so over-the-top in its desperate seriousness, that it readily tips into shrillness: the recasting of Marion (Cate Blanchett) into an unsmiling warrior woman, the maze of political grinding centered around the irritable John (Oscar Issac), the attempt to re-historicise Richard I (Danny Huston) by presenting him as a colossal prick and not the Lion Heart of legendary fame, the very smug theme about freedom and power to the people that is undone not only by the filmmakers' refusal to adopt any clear stance on their theme (the debate flaring up here and there as to whether it is a leftist or libertarian movie misses the point entirely, that it is rather more a movie of cynical calculation that doesn't want to possess any politics, for fearing of alienating somebody), but also by the fact that it is a jaw-dropping anachronism, an
"up with democracy" story set hundreds of years too early.
So serious about everything, so focused on the import of specific moments, that the whole edifice ends up making no damn sense: half the time, I caught myself wondering who exactly was perpetrating which act of violence on which poor village and why. Scott tries to help us along by putting identifying titles everywhere, so that pretty much every single time the film changes locations, we're helpfully told where we've ended up "Notthingham", "The Thames Estuary", even if this fact is painfully clear from the context. I'd hoped that we might eventually get a title with every new scene (""Marion's Bedroom", "A Mud Pit Just Inside Sherwood Forest"), but to no avail. At any rate, the best way to avoid getting lost is to remember that the wicked Anglo-Frenchman Godfrey (Mark Strong, who has become incredibly hard to avoid lately, with increasingly debased results every time) is always wrong, and Robin Longstride, this film's name for the hero, is always right.
There's really not much in here to like: the plot is convoluted and meritless, the action is overdirected all to hell and framed in weird ways so that you can never be exactly sure of what's going on, there's not a trace of delight, the comic relief falls flat almost without exception (the exception that leaps to mind is due entirely to Cate Blanchett's sense of timing), the relationship between Robin and Marion founders on the leads' resolute lack of chemistry. It's not intelligent enough to be a good drama, and nowhere near breezy enough to be fun at all. Scott hasn't made a true masterpiece in a very long time, but even he is only rarely capable of something this clattering and unpleasant; I have no idea why he devoted so much time to whipping the story into this shape (allegedly, when he arrived at the project, it was a pro-sheriff movie starring Crowe called Nottingham; now the sheriff, played by Matthew Macfadyen, appears in all of three scenes) if all he was going to end up with was this inert chunk of joyless drudgery which best serves as the advertisement for its own sequel, the one where things actually happen. And a good advertisement, at that, because there's no way that Robin Hood 2 could fail to be an improvement.