At times Robin Hood feels like a training film for the Tea Party movement. There is much talk of tyranny and liberty. "We'll only serve a law we had a hand in making," complains an English baron at an angry outdoor meeting that features much shouting and bitterness. (All that's missing is the birther placards.) Even more pointed are scenes depicting tax agents during tax season. These government representatives are marauders, pillaging, smashing, burning, killing. They commit every known atrocity short of enacting health-care reform.
It's a lively motif for our troubled times, and for the sake of entertainment I actually wish director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland had had the commitment to focus on it more intensely - or to focus on anything more intensely. But this Robin Hood feels meandering and rote.
Part of the problem is that there is not enough Robin Hood, who is played, adequately but dispassionately, by Russell Crowe. The cast is enormous, and too much screen time is given to unnecessary exposition and inessential characters like the courtier William Marshall (William Hurt).
True, the Robin Hood mythology is sweeping, and there is a lot of story to tell. As the film begins, in 1199, Robin and an English army are storming a French castle in a charge led by King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), making his way back to London from a crusade. Richard is killed, and his effete, decadent brother John (Oscar Isaac) assumes the throne. Keeping a promise, Robin returns a slain knight's sword to his blind, blustering father Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), a Nottingham landowner whose holdings are looked after by his daughter-in-law Marion (Cate Blanchett).
Robin assumes the identity of the dead knight and takes over the family affairs. In a bold business move, he and his Merry Men ambush the churchmen who have confiscated much of the Loxley seed stock. The people will be fed, and the stage is set for more virtuous lawlessness to come. Meanwhile, the king of France is planning to invade England, helped by the English turncoat Godfrey (Mark Strong).
There is some pleasure in watching Robin do what we expect him do: run around in the forest, woo Marion, shoot arrows with deadly accuracy. But Crowe lacks conviction here, as does Scott. Their 2000 collaboration Gladiator burned with a weird fierceness, but Robin Hood more closely resembles Scott's Crusades-themed dud Gates of Heaven: fitfully thrilling, mainly dull. One source of interest is Blanchett's Marion, brave and wry. But Blanchett is underutilized, and other characters we'd expect to see more of - the sheriff of Nottingham, Friar Tuck - make only token appearances.
The action sequences also hold some interest, but watching them I kept comparing them unfavorably to Red Cliff, the John Woo-directed war epic that had an all-too-brief Madison run earlier this year. Woo uses relatively sustained takes in his battle sequences, and there always is a clear sense of who is where on the battlefield, what is strategically at stake. In comparison, the climactic battle scene of Robin Hood is frenetically, jaggedly edited, a technique that, to these eyes, works to subdue excitement, not build it. A similar editing approach was used to make Richard Gere seem to dance in Chicago, to similarly dispiriting effect.