The problem with Ridley Scott's reimagining of the Robin Hood legend begins with the casting of Russell Crowe and ends with the realization that this is intended to be the first in a series. Why are the producers already planning sequels? The movie is a competent but unremarkable historical action epic.
Somewhat competent, that is. First you have to forgive some terrible casting decisions, questionable reworking of the legend and a risible scene in which Robin Hood is recast as the architect of the Magna Carta.
Crowe plays Robin Longstride, a lowly soldier on the way back from the Third Crusade when King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston, imbuing the king with a salty vigor that makes you wish the movie was more about him) dies during the siege of a French castle, sending Robin to Nottingham, where he meets Marion (Cate Blanchett), her father-in-law (Max von Sydow) and his destiny. Driven by circumstance to the Locksley clan, Robin gets wrapped up in the tumult caused by the assumption of the throne by Richard's brother, John (Oscar Isaac), whose ambitions are twisted into treason by a shadowy double-agent named Godfrey (Mark Strong), who's helping King Philip of France (Jonathan ZaccaA_) plot an invasion.
Director Scott and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, place the taxation plot of other Robin Hood stories in the background, and this time it's the nobles who are in dire need of a good 13th-century accountant (those poor noblemen). There's also some light “Taming of the Shrew” stuff between Marion and Robin, and we've yet to reveal who Robin is and why he's more than a mere commoner. There's barely any room for Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) or the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew MacFadyen). Perhaps they are being saved for subsequent films, but “Robin Hood” doesn't exactly leave the audience begging for more.
Crowe is his usual forceful self, but his gladiators, masters, commanders and long bowman start to blur into one glowering, brooding action hero who's a little too far on the other side of 40 to be playing the young upstart in an origin story. Crowe feels less like a Robin Hood and more like another cog in a dutiful Hollywood action machine, full of battles, romance, galloping horses and galloping scores, but little originality.
Perhaps most disappointing are the battle sequences, the mead for many moviegoers willing to toil through the two-plus hours. Like much of the film, they recall the recent past rather than the distant one. Arrows fly through the air; men race on horseback into the fray; they leap out of water in slow motion. You can bet your hovel there's an arrow point-of-view shot. The settings are more interesting. The last takes place on a beach, which the French forces storm like long-sword wielding Marines. But we've seen everything that happens between the various armies and combatants countless times before, often a lot better.
It'd be refreshing to see a film like this do something new with medieval combat, to drop the typical choppy, choreographed editing of “Braveheart,” and perhaps draw back to show the terrible chaos and fright of men chopping at each other with sharpened steel. Anthony Minghella staged something along those lines at the beginning of “Cold Mountain.” The pitiful anonymity of such mass bloodshed could be as engrossing as the individual macho histrionics in “Robin Hood,” but it isn't the type of movie to take such chances. Scott and Helgeland's tinkering with the formula, casting pudgy, gray-haired men as knights and sending Marion out to fight in a set of maid armor, does more harm than good.
In one of the few simple scenes that feel right for a Robin Hood adventure, Robin and his men hold up a merchant cart on a moonlit night, so they can take the booty back to Nottingham for their noble friends. That's right, Robin robs from the rich so he can give to the rich. That the one set of rich are his enemies and the other his friends is clear, but the dissociation of Robin as a man out for the common people might be a reason that the people seem to have forsaken him in return, at least at the box office.
This time around, the poor are relegated to nonspeaking roles. They may revolt by ignoring Robin's next escapade altogether. (PG-13) 131 min. **