Review: “Robin Hood” (2010)
WARNING: IN TIMES OF TYRANNY AND INJUSTICE, WHEN LAW OPPRESSES THE PEOPLE, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
Last month, in touting “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn, I wrote:
I kept thinking of this line while watching Ridley Scott’s new, updated “Robin Hood.” Because how long does it take Scott to get us to the point in the story where we want to be? Five minutes? Forty-five? An hour?
How about the entire frickin’ movie?
You know those scenes from the trailers? King John: “I declare him to be an outLAAAAAAAW!” Sheriff of Nottingham: “Nail, please.” [Cue arrow splicing between his fingers.] Those aren’t from the middle of the movie. They’re from the last three minutes. This is an origin issue. It’s a prequel. It’s “Robin Hood Begins.” You have the oldest Robin Hood ever (Russell Crowe, 46) playing the youngest Robin Hood ever.
Here’s the question: Is this a bad thing?
The movie begins in France, where King Richard (Danny Huston), returning from the Crusades, stops to sack a castle and get some dough to make up for all the money he lost in the Crusades. Among his men, some common archers: Robin Longstride (Crowe), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes, Malarkey in “Band of Brothers”) and Allan a’Dayle (Alan Doyle).
At the end of a day’s battle, this Robin apparently likes nothing better than making a little money with the old shell game, but Little John (Scott Grimes) thinks he’s cheating. He’s not. They get into a brawl anyway. At that same moment, King Richard, with his right-hand man Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), is walking disguised among his troops, searching like Diogenes for an honest man. He finds one. “What is your opinion of my Crusade?” he asks Robin. “Will God be pleased with my gesture?” Pause. Pause. “No, He won’t,” Robin says in Crowe’s quiet, firm voice. Robin talks about the massacre at Acre, about the killing of women and children that Sean Connery’s Robin Hood referenced in “Robin and Marian.” He talks about the look a Muslim woman gave him before he beheaded her. It wasn’t anger; it was pity. “She knew when you gave the order,” he adds, “we would be Godless. All of us.”
Honest answer. Cut to: Robin and his men in the stockades.
The next day Richard is killed by a common French archer, and Robin gathers his men so they can attempt to cross the channel before the three thousand now-kingless soldiers try to get back on their own. On the way, they encounter the king’s horse, riderless and carrying the crown in a satchel, and discover the king’s men, including Loxley, ambushed. Ambushing the ambushers, Robin’s arrow cuts the cheek of the fleeing and treasonous Godfrey (Mark Strong), who has secretly allied himself with King Phillip of France against his old friend Prince John. Then Robin hears the dying words of Loxley. The nobleman asks the commoner to deliver his sword—with the words, “Rise and Rise Again. Until Lambs Become Lions” on the hilt—to his father. Robin nods. Loxley dies. Then Robin adopts Loxley’s identity. Few will question knights and noblemen carrying the king’s crown. Commoners would be lucky not to be hanged.
All of this, thus far, is pretty smart. The longer the legend of Robin Hood has endured, the more names he has been given. So why not have the confusion begin during his lifetime? Later versions of the tale, too, turned him from a commoner/thief to an aristocrat wrongfully dispossessed of his lands, and Hollywood, in its umpteen versions, has played along. So why not, in our more democratic time, explain it all away? Robin is a commoner. He’s merely disguised as a nobleman. The first of his many disguises.
What’s not smart is the way the 72-year-old Scott handles the early deaths. Richard is allowed final words and rising choir music. How much more effective if he’d just died. From king—ffftt!—to corpse in a second. Loxley needs to say his final words, to further the plot, but both he and Richard don’t need the rising choir music. They’re godless now, remember? Move along, Ridley. Move along.
That said, the scene where the crown is returned to London is surprisingly touching. The royals wait at the end of a long dock for Richard to emerge from his ship; instead there’s this Loxley man with the crown. No words are spoken. Everyone knows. Then Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), accepts the crown with gravity, and with greater gravity, knowing the disaster that awaits, puts it on the head of her ne’er-do-well son, John (Oscar Isaac), while his French pastry of a girlfriend, Isabella of Angoulême (Léa Seydoux), trembles with excitement at becoming queen. The scene turns amusing as John, overcome, is about to reward Loxley, until he realizes, essentially, “Wait a minute. Loxley? Your father owes me back taxes,” and pockets the reward.
Robin, still pretending to be Loxley, plans on returning the sword to the father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), and tells his doubtful men, “We can’t repay good luck with bad grace.” Great line. Also good move. His good grace winds up being repaid with even better luck. At the Loxley estate, Sir Walter asks him to continue a ruse the old man didn’t know he’d begun. He asks him to play his son. He likes the cut of Robin’s jib, he has no heir, and when he dies, Marion, Loxley’s wife (Cate Blanchett), will lose it all. It’s win-win for everyone. Robin accepts, and, for a time, the movie becomes a kind of “Return of Robin Guerre.”
Unfortunately the plot thickens and thickens. King John sends Godfrey to collect taxes from the northern Barons to pay for Richard’s wars, but Godfrey’s plan is to burn and pillage so that, when Phillip invades, the country will be divided. Meanwhile, Robin learns his father, a stonemason, was put to death when Robin was six for, in essence, creating one of the greatest documents in western civilization, the Magna Carta, giving rights to noblemen and binding the king to law. Thus when Godrey’s perfidy is discovered and Phillips’ intentions known, Robin, still playing Loxley, and still riding the king’s white horse, breaks the impasse between barons and King John by resurrecting his father’s old idea. The barons will fight for king and England, but John will grant them rights and bind himself to law. And off they go, almost two hours into the two hour, 20 minute movie, to the southern coast of England to fight the French. With nary a sign of Sherwood Forest in sight.
Going against expectations isn’t a bad thing—and in Hollywood, with its love of formula, it’s normally applauded—but “Robin Hood,” from title to trailer, feels like false advertising. Even “Batman Begins,” with “begins” in its title, gives us Batman halfway through. This thing is called Robin Hood, for god’s sake, and the opening title card tells us, “In times of tyranny and injustice, when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history.” But Robin isn’t made an outLAAAAAAAW until three minutes before credits. Is it setting up another movie? And has that one been filmed yet? Because Crowe, bless him, isn’t getting any younger or thinner. It’s as if we were promised sex, but the girl frittered away the evening and left us with the mere hope, that maybe, in two years time, we might finally have that sex. We can’t help but leave her place confused and dissatisfied.
Listen: I love Crowe in these roles. Costner’s Robin Hood failed, in part, because he wasn’t much of a leader. Crowe is. One can’t imagine not following him into battle, and not because he gives this or that speech, but because there’s a stillness to him, a toughness, an honesty. The quieter his voice gets, the tougher he reveals himself to be. I go back to that early scene in “L.A. Confidential” when he confronts the wife beater. Standing on his lawn, hands in his pockets, relaxed and not, a conversational voice: “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” He has that quality here. He can reveal his authority in acquiescence. “Ask me nice,” he says to Marion, as she, in their ruse, divvies up sleeping arrangements. Robin gets to sleep with the dogs. Others might be mad, but he’s half-amused, accepts it as a given, and charmingly seems at home on those dirty blankets. He rubs the belly of the mutt closest to him like it’s an old friend. I was reminded of Brando with the cat. Apparently great actors can act with animals without being upstaged.
But because Crowe works doesn't mean the movie isn't dry and overlong. Remember the thrill watching the guy become the guy in other recent origin tales, such as “Batman Begins” and “Casino Royale”? We don’t get that here. Maybe because it’s telling a different tale than the one we know.
For that, at least, give Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland credit. They are fixing what’s wrong with the Robin Hood legend from our more modern perspective. Generally the story’s about a nobleman surreptitiously fighting a corrupt usurper until the real ruler, a wayward, warmongering king, returns. You have to bend the language pretty hard to make anyone care about that these days. So they’ve given us a commoner who will force the king, the legitimate but corrupt king, into recognizing the legal rights of his subjects. Much better, thank you.
But a “Robin Hood” movie still needs a Robin Hood.