“Can you not sing a happy tune?” growls a not-so-merry man in “Robin Hood,” and one might direct the same question at Ridley Scott’s grimly revisionist take on England’s most famous outlaw. Impressively made and serious-minded to a fault, this physically imposing picture brings abundant political-historical dimensions to its epic canvas, yet often seems devoted to stifling whatever pleasure audiences may have derived from the popular legend. With a brawny Russell Crowe in the title role, pic looks to hit its B.O. target in most markets, though overall muted reactions may hold Universal back from a king’s ransom Stateside.
While the film will earn immediate comparisons with 2004’s gritty, unromantic “King Arthur,” what Scott and scribe Brian Helgeland have attempted here is not too dissimilar from what Christopher Nolan and his collaborators pulled off with “Batman Begins”: They’ve fashioned a fresh origin story for a well-known hero and excised all the material’s potentially campy aspects in favor of a downbeat, detail-oriented realist approach.
To that end, there are tricky political allegiances and family ties to be sorted out; characters are as likely to be assaulted by speeches as by arrows; the French, though clearly perceived here as the enemy, are at least allowed to speak their native tongue; and every castle and forest must be painstakingly identified, to the point that “Robin Hood” comes to resemble a medieval “Bourne” movie as it darts hither and yon from Nottingham to the northern coast of France.
It’s 1199 A.D., and Robin Longstride (Crowe, who produced with Scott and Brian Grazer) is an honorable Briton and skilled archer in the crusading army of King Richard (Danny Huston) — who, in contrast to most versions of the story, appears at the beginning rather than the end. Fed up with their lot as soldiers, Robin and his men — who include a slimmer-than-usual Little John (Kevin Durand), contributing a few moments of bawdy humor — flee a battle with French soldiers shortly after Richard himself is killed in action.
A few skirmishes later, Robin finds himself in possession of the late monarch’s crown, which he bears back to London disguised as a knight of the realm, Sir Robert Loxley. Along the way, the film introduces its principal villains, although Richard’s cruel successor, John (Oscar Isaac), turns out to be a mere tool for his suspiciously bilingual adviser, Godfrey (chrome-domed Mark Strong, once again typecast).
While Godfrey sets the stage for a Gallic invasion, sabotaging John’s relations with the local barons and their ruthlessly overtaxed citizens, Robin nobly seeks out the family of the fallen Sir Robert. The journey leads him to Nottingham, where he meets the knight’s aging father, Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), and his widow, Lady Marion — no damsel in distress, but a dagger-wielding spitfire played with relish by Cate Blanchett.
The pairing of two such estimable actors as Crowe and Blanchett alone signals the film’s serious intentions, and as a perhaps inevitable consequence, Robin and Marion’s courtship is in no hurry to catch fire. Something similar could be said of the film, whose leisurely buildup rarely translates into a sense of intellectual vigor and pays few emotional dividends. Essentially 139 minutes’ worth of backstory, “Robin Hood” feels too long yet incomplete, and the events it leaves offscreen (for what, the sequel?) are precisely those that make the tale worth retelling.
Clearly a long way from Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn (and, to no one’s complaint, Kevin Costner), pic can’t help but play like a joyless corrective to Robin Hood’s prior screen adventures, with their buoyant mix of wit, romance, green tights and derring-do. (This film offers mainly derring-don’t.) A certain nagging political correctness is also apparent, not only in the recasting of Blanchett’s Marion as a 12th-century feminist, but in the way Robin rebukes Richard and the folly of the Crusades, a scene that brings Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” to mind.
Similarly, Robin’s stirring speech on the brotherhood of man (it’s a quasi-Ken Loach moment, laying the foundation for the Magna Carta) recalls Scott and Crowe’s superior first collaboration, “Gladiator” (2000). Now 10 years older (and paunchier), Crowe still has the sullen brooding and iron-clad sense of righteousness down pat. But there’s no twinkle of merriment in his eyes, nothing to suggest a man who would not only be outraged by poverty and injustice, but wily enough to make sport of those responsible.
Among supporting players, Isaac channels “Gladiator’s” Joaquin Phoenix as a fey yet ruthless tyrant; Eileen Atkins serves up a formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine; William Hurt brings subtle shadings to the role of a chancellor in whom Robin finds a shrewd ally; and Matthew Macfadyen sneers his way through a few scenes as the Sheriff of Nottingham. But it’s von Sydow who gives the film’s most heartrending turn as a man trying to smother his grief with a boisterous fighting spirit.
Though heavier on talk than action, pic does boast some robust setpieces, amplified by Marc Streitenfeld’s urgent score and d.p. John Mathieson’s vertiginous crane shots, somewhat marred by distracting camera effects in an otherwise stylistically old-fashioned film. One must be grateful that Universal avoided the current blockbuster trend toward 3D, especially considering the eye-popping possibilities afforded by archery.
Other craft contributions are generally superb, though some touches, such as the illuminated manuscripts that serve as expository visual aids, only compound the film’s self-seriousness.