What compelled director Ridley Scott to train his formidable sights on another Robin Hood movie? Scott already tackled the Crusades in the underrated Kingdom of Heaven, and he collaborated with Russell Crowe on the epic Gladiator, with its giant battle scenes in which arrows rained down like thunderstorms. Why go back and repeat yourself? Why bother with Sherwood Forest again, after even Mel Brooks has trampled there?
The answer lies in the script by Brian Helgeland, which differs from all other Robin Hoods. This one is a prequel. This is the story of how Robin Longstride (Crowe) met and fell for Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett) and how he made an enemy out of King John and how he befriended Friar Tuck and Little John and put together his band of Merry Men and why he started stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The movie ends with the title card "And so the legend begins." The film is over just when the story starts to get good.
Scott is a diehard history buff, and he's fond of telling interviewers "I don't make movies. I create worlds." You can see why he would have been lured by the opportunity to place a mythical folk hero into a complex plot about a 13th century French conspiracy to invade England. With Robin Hood, Scott gets to reimagine the past and fixate on the fine details he adores, such as the blob of wax that seals a tiny scroll carried by a messenger pigeon, or the ornate metalwork on the stirrups Marion uses to ride her horse.
Robin Hood is certainly a grand-looking picture. For a film that's filled with CGI effects, there isn't a single shot that looks artificial, and the production design is tremendous. But it's a hollow, boring spectacle. Crowe usually commits to his roles with a ferocious intensity, but he doesn't really seem to believe in Robin. When you look into his eyes, you see an actor trying to remember his lines. And the performances around him run the gamut. Oscar Isaac amusingly hams up the petulance of King John, who becomes a bratty bully the second the crown of his late brother Richard I touches his head, while William Hurt looks on the verge of REM sleep as a royal advisor whose purpose consists primarily of spouting exposition.
Blanchett's Marion is more flinty and less prone to requiring rescue than previous incarnations, but her romance with Robin isn't given enough screen time to develop, so their relationship, which should form the movie's heart, instead feels like a tacked-on romantic subplot. Robin Hood only comes to life in the climactic sequence, a prolonged battle in which the French army disembarks on the British shore. The carnage is strongly reminiscent of the Omaha Beach invasion that opened Saving Private Ryan, only with swords and arrows instead of rifles and grenades.
The rest of Robin Hood, which runs an excruciating 140 minutes, is as dry as a geology lecture. When Max Von Sydow, as Marion's kindly, blind father-in-law, takes Crowe aside and says "I think I have much to tell you about history," my eyes started darting frantically for the theater exits, because I was pretty certain someone in the audience was going to spontaneously combust from boredom. Scott has directed some dull, long-winded pictures before (1492: The Conquest of Paradise), but he's never made one this pointless. Robin Hood achieves something you never would have thought possible: it makes you nostalgic for Kevin Costner and Bryan Adams.
Robin Hood (*1/2 ouf of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday May 14.