Movies: Robin Hood * *
(12A, general release)
Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott have worked together so often in recent times (this is their fifth collaboration in 10 years) that they must feel like a pair of old slippers.
In fairness, Scott does have a knack for bringing out the best in the mercurial Crowe, as evidenced by the likes of Gladiator and American Gangster. But their last film together, the dreary 2008 conspiracy thriller Body of Lies, was not an unqualified success, and there are ways in which Robin Hood could be seen as a joint attempt to recapture the magical sweep of Gladiator.
The idea for an update of the much-loved English folk tale had been knocking around Hollywood in script form for a couple of years before Scott got his hands on it. He completely rewrote the story, persuaded Crowe to become involved, and determined to shoot as much of his film as possible in English locations including Sherwood Forest. Scott was not a fan of any of the previous Hood films, and set out to bring a touch of Gladiator grit to the story of a character whose emerald tights can all too easily be read as a sign of effeminacy.
Russell Crowe doesn't do effeminate, and the tights are out in this grimy action drama that forms a sort of prequel to the legend proper. Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer in the armies of Richard The Lionheart (Danny Huston), England's errant, bellicose king.
For 10 years, Richard and his men have been cutting a swathe across Europe and the Middle East, and are just sacking a few last castles in northern France prior to their triumphant homecoming when Richard is hit by an arrow and dies.
When Richard's loyal lieutenant, Sir Robert of Loxley, tries to return the crown to English soil, he is ambushed in a trap set by the English traitor Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), and killed. But before Godfrey can seize the crown for himself, a small group -- led by Robin Longstride -- runs them off and badly wounds Godfrey. Robin has become disillusioned with the army, and he and his friends Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and a tiresome minstrel called Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) decide that Loxley's death represents an opportunity.
They will pose as knights in order to gain safe passage across the Channel, return the crown to the new king, John, then repair to a safe place and divide the treasure the actual knights were carrying. All goes swimmingly until Godfrey spots Robin at the royal palace, and realises he's not the real Loxley.
Godfrey duly puts Robin on his hit list, but he has even bigger fish to fry. King John (Oscar Isaac) is an arrogant fop who's only interested in raising taxes, and Godfrey is secretly playing him off against Phillip of France, who is planning a sneaky invasion.
Even as those duplicitous cheese-eaters are wading ashore with their rotten food and ugly language, England is being driven towards civil war by John and Godfrey's excesses.
Will old Blighty find a hero to unite it? Take a wild guess. Cate Blanchett plays Loxley's widow and Robin's squeeze, and Max Von Sydow is Loxley senior, and those two and Crowe are the best things about a film that gets so bogged down in the intricacies of its story that by the time the big battle scenes come along, one has almost lost the will to live.
Robin Hood films should be silly, yes, but never boring, and this one at times is tedious in the extreme. It also peddles the kind of clichés designed to go down a bomb in middle America: as Will Scarlet is Welsh, a joke must be made about him eating leeks.
There are some odd accents knocking around, not least Crowe's, and the action unfolds to the tune of ghastly, pseudo-Celtic music.
It's a clumsy, cumbersome, needlessly pedestrian film that spends too much of its time teeing up a potential sequel. If that ever gets made, it's bound to be better than this.