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Robin Hood is being aggressively sold to audiences as a kind of Gladiator follow-up, and yeah, a few of the details are right-- Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott's names, for one, plus some grayscale battle sequences, a wronged man fighting for justice, and lots and lots of clanging swords. But everything about Gladiator that elevated it from cheesy potboiler to something kind of great is lost in Robin Hood, a very long, very noisy epic without an ounce of adventure in it.
Robin Hood is one of history's most enduring heroes, but this "untold story" about what led him to stealing from the rich and giving to the poor merely maroons the character within a battle between France and England, a battle with virtually no stakes and no relevance to any characters we care about. The Merry Men-- embodied nicely by Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes and Alan Doyle, for what it's worth-- are relegated to wisecracking background characters, and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) pops up once in a while to talk nonsense about beehives and remind the audience, oh yeah, this is a Robin Hood story. Even the notorious Sheriff of Nottingham is so sidelined that he's played by the famous actor Matthew Macfadyen, and I didn't even notice. Robin and Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett) get a little more screentime, and their adversarial flirtation marks some of the movie's best moments, but the minute they really get cranking its off to watch more men in armor bitch and moan about France.
One of the many long wars between England and France is the background of this tale, kicking off when Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is returning from a ten-year Crusade with archer Robin Longstride and nobleman Robert Loxley, among others, in his company. Richard is killed in battle, and Loxley is offed, accidentally, by villainous Godfrey (Mark Strong), an Englishman working as a spy for France. For reasons not all that interesting to explain, Robin assumes Loxley's identity and returns to his home in Nottingham, where Loxley's ailing father (Max von Sydow), for more uninteresting reasons, begs Robin to assume his late son's identity and take up with Marian, Loxley's long-abandoned wife who is understandably a little hostile to the new impostor in her bedroom.
Meanwhile, King Richard's worthless younger brother John (Oscar Isaac) has taken over the throne, and because he's an idiot who doesn't recognize a villain when he sees one, continues taking advice from the two-timing Godfrey, leading his country right toward an invasion from France. Back in Nottingham Robin is starting up some of his rabble-rousing talk about rights for all men and the value of human dignity, then somehow it all leads into a big battle on the beach, where Marian has shown up in armor for no reason I can think of except maybe she saw Eowyn do it in Return of the King?
I'm really not trying to be glib in glossing over the plot mechanics that tie together the giant battles of the beginning of the film into the giant battles at the end; I'm sure there was a rational explanation in there somewhere, but there's only so long you can watch a bunch of characters who aren't Robin Hood talk sternly to one another before it starts to wash over you. It doesn't help that nearly ever actor is the blandest they've ever been, with even the luminous Blanchett shoved into the typical strident female role, and Crowe unable to bring either the quirks of his recent schlubby characters from Body of Lies or State of Play or the fierce intensity of Maximus. It takes real effort to make a movie that allows Crowe, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, Max von Sydow and William Hurt all to turn in entirely unmemorable performances, but congratulations, Ridley Scott, you've made it happen.
The grim gray cinematography and mud on everyones' clothes and faces lend this Robin Hood more medieval authenticity than most film versions of the story, but halfway through this seemingly endless film you may find yourself longing for a Bryan Adams power ballad, or maybe an animated fox with a feather in his cap. If anything, this film proves conclusively that the next chapter of Robin Hood's story, the stealing-from-the-rich part that this film firmly sets up for a sequel that will never happen, is the part that's been told over the centuries because it's the part that's actually interesting. It's as if you were watching a movie about the 13 years Jesus spent doing god-knows-what, and it ended just before he started that whole preaching career.