'Robin Hood' lost in the forest

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2010

'Robin Hood'

Universal Pictures

2 hours, 20 minutes

Every once in a while a project comes along that seems like a can't miss proposition. Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible." Perfect. Sean Connery as Indiana Jones' father. Inspired casting. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, the team that brought us "Gladiator," coming together to create a gritty, dramatic and gorgeously shot retelling of one of the most famous legends in history? How can you lose? How indeed.

"Robin Hood" is a huge mess. I don't really understand it. Crowe and Scott are two of the most talented people in their respective fields, but the movie just doesn't work.

One of the major problems has to have been a misguided desire to cast the character of Robin Hood as a major player in the actual historical framework of Great Britain.

Most versions of this oft-told tale place Robin as a soldier in the army of King Richard the Lionheart.

He returns home to Nottingham after years abroad to find his people being slowly but surely smothered under the weight of untenable taxation brought on by Richard's venal brother King John, and the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.

Robin takes on the mantle of an outlaw, setting up shop in Sherwood Forest with a band of merry men, stealing from the rich to pay the poor, and winning the hand of the beautiful Maid Marion in the process. Everybody's happy.

The Ridley Scott version follows a vaguely similar plotline, but manages to ruin the story nevertheless. Here, with a nod to historical accuracy, I guess, Richard is played as drunk, foolish, and insecure. Robin is an archer and little more than a grunt in the army. When Richard is suddenly killed in battle, Robin and his friends, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Alan A'Dayle, decide that desertion is the better part of valor, and hightail it out of there. By chance they happen upon an ambush where the knight tasked with taking Richard's crown home to John has been mortally wounded. The knight, Sir Robert Loxley, begs Robin to take his sword home to Nottingham to his father. Our hero reluctantly agrees and off we go.

The merry band arrives in Nottingham to find the blind elder Loxley, Sir Walter, and the poor dead Loxley's wife, Marion. It's at this point that things really start to get confusing. Walter asks Robin to pretend to be Robert so that the Loxley lands aren't forfeit. But the evil nobleman, Godfrey, who ordered the ambush that killed the real Robert is now out to kill Robin because he knows too much. Also, Godfrey is plotting with France to invade England. But King John, who married his French mistress in order to gain favor somehow with the French court, is going to raise an army to fight off the French. This is where the high taxes come in.

However, instead of battling the evil taxes, Robin gets tapped to lead the English army against the French, but not before basically laying out the Magna Carta all by himself. Meanwhile, a masked Maid Marion is leading a pack of lost boys astride miniature ponies into battle against the French troops. Say what?

Robin Hood is just a story, and the attempt to shoehorn him into historical events is frustrating. Worse, though, is when the rest of the film is as haphazard and messy as the aforementioned ill-conceived plot device. The story itself is too complicated to effectively follow, and the characters veer wildly in their particular traits. Robin is a poor soldier who somehow has the ability to command an army. John is bad, then good, then pouty, then bad again. Marion is basically played as a Medieval Rosie the Riveter who, despite kicking butt through the entire movie, ultimately needs her man to save her.

The actors, including one of my favorites, Cate Blanchett as Marion, are doing their best, but the script doesn't leave them much to work with. Even the look of the film is off. Scott seems to be trying new techniques, using the audience as guinea pigs for his shaky camera, extreme close-ups, and terrible, yet extremely sincere score.

Perhaps it's no wonder that "Robin Hood" stumbles so badly. This is a movie that's been managed from before it ever had a finished screenplay. Originally to be entitled "Nottingham," the story was to cast Crowe as the Sheriff, and tell the tale from his point of view.

This role reversal might have been interesting, but the suits in the front office were scared off. So, everything got switched back, and the role of the Sheriff all but disappeared. In his place is the evil Godfrey, played by Mark Strong in full villain mode.

I tried to like this film, but I just couldn't. The critical response to "Iron Man 2" was so off the mark that when the negative buzz for "Robin Hood" started I assumed it was just as wrong. Cranky critics with an axe to grind over summer blockbusters? Not this time. "Robin Hood" manages to steal from a rich and vibrant legend, without giving back anything in return.

Grade: C-

"Robin Hood" is rated PG-13 for battle violence, extreme action, and scenes of sensuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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