Friday, May 21, 2010

Shadows and Dust: Robin Hood

In the foreground, French soldiers unload from boats onto the white sand beaches of England. In the distance, beyond the sheer cliff faces, at least a hundred Saxons ride hard to meet them, a torrent of thundering hooves pouring over the lush green grass. Ridley Scott captures all of this in a single majestic shot that is at least the most breathtaking image in Robin Hood and that might also be one of the most fantastic wide shots in the director’s entire career. It’s the kind of shot David Lean would have envied, the kind of shot that a back-in-the-day Werner Herzog would have harassed hundreds of extras in order to capture, the kind of shot that would be iconic if only the film were worthy of being iconized. Alas, it lasts all of three seconds. Blink and you might miss it. Scott’s Robin Hood is a film that’s overlong and underwhelming, that has romance but lacks heart and that exhaustively details the origins of its titular hero without ever giving him, you know, character. Yet the film’s biggest blunder might be that all-too-brief panorama, because without it we could have pretended that mediocrity was the movie’s only option.

Instead, mediocrity is what Robin Hood settles for. The film is too darn competent to be considered awful. There are scattered moments of catastrophe offset by moments worth cherishing, like that coastline shot described above, or the almost equally striking shot of King Richard the Lionheart’s boat heading up the Thames with a supportive flotilla of smaller boats scattered around it and a magnificent castle looming ahead (achieved with CGI, of course). Robin Hood is one of those movies that fills you with the sense that something truly worthwhile might be waiting right around the corner, and yet it’s uninspiring enough to keep you from being too disappointed when that tantalizing promise never arrives. A decade after Gladiator and five years removed from Kingdom of Heaven, this is Scott’s third sword-and-shield historical epic of his last nine feature films (and I use “epic” as loosely as I use “historical” in that description), and if he isn’t tired of this genre he at least seems uninspired by it. Robin Hood suggests a director who feels boxed in, perhaps by Gladiator’s critical acclaim and box office success, or maybe just by a limited imagination.

That said, moviegoers who appreciate the way Scott cooks are likely to enjoy what the director serves up here, even working from a lesser recipe, the same way so many Martin Scorsese fans gobble up The Departed like it’s soul food. Fair enough. Fact is, most directors have go-to styles, techniques and themes. So maybe it’s silly to wonder why Scott allows Robin Hood to feel so much like Gladiator, from its massive opening battle scene, to its desaturated color palette, to its power-to-the-people hero (Crowe, again), to its sniveling insecure heir to the throne (this time Oscar Isaac modeling his Prince John after Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus), and so on. Maybe it’s unfair to wish that Scott would stop using the high-shutter-speed technique in an effort to add adrenaline to his fight scenes. Maybe, along the lines of Matt Zoller Seitz’s “friendship theory,” I should accept Scott for what he is and accept Robin Hood in the same light. Then again, how many times can I watch a Crowe hero grabbing a weapon thrown to him by one of his flunkies as he gallops by on horseback, which happens at least once in Gladiator and twice more in Robin Hood, without feeling like Scott is simply going through the motions?

Upon further reflection, it makes perfect sense that Crowe’s Robin Hood doesn’t have a distinctive personality, because Robin Hood doesn’t either. Crowe, easily one of the most talented A-listers in the business, frequently looks lost here – less like a man struggling with his own feelings than like an actor searching for his character’s motivation. At least three times in Robin Hood, Crowe wrinkles his forehead while shifting is eyes side-to-side in an effort to suggest deep thought, but all I saw was a man wondering, “Who am I?” It’s fitting that, according to the designs of the narrative, Crowe’s Robin has forgotten where he came from, because the character is indeed written as if he has no history. What moves him? We don’t know. Who is he close to? We don’t know. What shapes him? Again, we don’t know. Is he skilled with a bow and arrow? No doubt. But he’s also good with a sword and a hammer, and frankly seems to prefer them. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland has morphed Robin into a generic sword-and-shield badass, with nothing to make him unique or memorable. Our only window to the character’s soul is his obsession with the phrase “Rise and rise again until lambs become lions,” which Robin finds printed on the handle of a sword. Yet just when we decide that Robin identifies with those words as a rallying cry for the oppressed to stand up to tyranny, Helgeland mistakenly allows him to translate the phrase as “Never give up.” How reductive! It’s like learning that The Beatles think “Let it be” means “Don’t worry, be happy.”

If only the relationship between Robin and Marion possessed some genuine spark. Perhaps then I could convince myself that Robin is moved by the love of a beautiful woman. That would be something. Alas, the romance here is flat to nonexistent, and thus the bond between the characters is never convincing. Cate Blanchett as Marion is given a character arc as implausible as her cheekbones: she’s introduced as the devoted wife only to be almost immediately transformed as the love-struck widow. During the oh-so-brief gap in between, Helgeland inserts some bickering-as-sexual-tension, but it’s perfunctory more than playful. As uncool as it is to sing the praises of 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner and one of his many horrific accents, at least that movie, with an assist from Bryan Adams, makes us feel as if everything Robin Hood does, he does for Marion, and vice versa. I know who that Robin is. This one? I only know what he isn’t: very interesting.


Mercer Finn said...

Pretty much agree with you, although I'm inclined to be just a tad more positive. I quite enjoyed the Robin/Marian romance, and I thought Crowe did OK as the hero (although the accent was hit and miss -- Crowe stormed out of an interview in which this was pointed out to him. Obv a sore point).

We tend to forget that without Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator would be trash. Robin Hood does exactly the same thing Gladiator did, but with a weaker villain. If they wanted to do the history properly, where King John is more than a caricature, that would have been REALLY interesting. Apparently, the film was originally going to focus on the Sheriff of Nottingham (played by Crowe). I think they should have stuck with that idea, rather than going in a more traditional Prince of Thieves direction.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mercer: Alas, I think my review might suggest I was more disgusted by the film than I really was.

As for the comparisons to Gladiator ...

I'd take a slightly different angle and say that Phoenix certainly makes the movie. But even if you exclude Phoenix from the comparison, Gladiator is a stronger film. Better score, certainly. And, most importantly, better understanding of the main character.

Consider ...

Wouldn't you say that we feel the love of Maxiumus for his wife much more strongly than we feel Robin's for Marion, even though we never actually see Maximus and his wife together? Furthermore, Maximus is driven by rage to get back at Commodus. Robin Hood lacks such a primal urge. In essence he goes from being a simple archer to being a political leader and hero figure all at once, with no convincing inspiration for the change.

It strikes me that in Gladiator you could cut all the action scenes and have a good, perhaps even better, film. If you cut the action scenes in Robin Hood, you'd be left with little that's of interest. At least, that's my reading.

Thanks for weighing in!

Tony Dayoub said...

Wouldn't you say that we feel the love of Maxiumus for his wife much more strongly than we feel Robin's for Marion, even though we never actually see Maximus and his wife together?

I disagree with your premise, Jason. You're comparing apples and oranges. The relationship between Maximus and his wife is meant to be a long and rich one. The one between Robin and Marion is a fledgling one just beginning to take shape. Scot depicted the tentative nature of the romance quite well, I thought.

It strikes me that in Gladiator you could cut all the action scenes and have a good, perhaps even better, film. If you cut the action scenes in Robin Hood, you'd be left with little that's of interest.

I also disagree with you on this point. Just to be clear, I'm not really coming to ROBIN HOOD's defense. The movie is derivative as hell. But the most transgressive derivations are in its action sequences where it blatantly steals from such films as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, and EL CID. Scott has always "paid homage" in even his best films. But here he is so lazy he just outright lifts whole setpieces.

The point I make in my own review is that the romance is the least recognizable of his lifts (1983's THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE); therefore, it is the least distracting and most engaging segment of his film (bolstered by Von Sydow's part in it, also). It also has the most to say about the feudal society depicted in the film and its gender politics, something seldom explored in Robin Hood tales, or summer movies for that matter.

It's an average film, but I prefer it over GLADIATOR which paled in comparison to SPARTACUS and even the pornographic CALIGULA, both of which depicted all strata of Roman society more realistically, more engagingly, and with more excitement.

Nonetheless, a well written review, Jason.

FilmDr said...

Nice review. I went to see Robin Hood expecting to loathe it, but I walked away intrigued by the way Crowe and Scott had tried to reinvent Robin as a competent, wily, but decidedly not flamboyant fellow. It seemed to me that the critics ganged up on the film because of its old-fashioned multiplicity, but now I wonder if it simply sets up too many strands without enough pay-offs later. We learn something of the Friar Tuck, and his portrait builds to a fun scene involving bees attacking the French, but it's not enough to make us care, and that kind of emotional thudding effect happens too often. Why is it that Marian had to appear in the last battle scene? Why did Scott feel obliged to pile so much ideology and earnest brooding onto a usually light, fun folk hero? Late in the movie, an arrow comes out of nowhere to pin the proclamation onto the tree. That shot has more flair and dash and playful rebellion than the rest of the film merits, and therein lies the problem.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: That's a really good point about the old love of Gladiator vs. the developing love of Robin Hood. So I agree it's a somewhat apples and oranges comparison. Still, the reason I bring it up is because we never actually see the Gladiator relationship but we do see the one in Robin Hood. Point being, Crowe's performance (with help from the dialogue, of course) makes us believe in the love in Gladiator, but I didn't get any genuine feeling out of the relationship in Robin Hood, even though that's apparently meant to be a core component of the story. (Note: I've read a few reviews now -- still need to go read yours -- and I've seen that a few critics entirely disagree with me and believe there's quite a bit of chemistry. So at some point it's just subjective. Anyway...)

As for the other Gladiator comparison ... Ignoring which film we prefer in general, I feel a connection to that character that I don't feel to the title hero of Robin Hood. I understood why he fought -- sometimes because he had no other option, sometimes out of anger, sometimes with thoughts of revenge. Robin Hood just fights, in my opinion. I realize the screenplay tries to tie these fights to some larger purpose, but I never felt it.

We do agree that Von Sydow gives the film a needed jolt. As for the politics, I just found them problematic. You're right that we don't usually get this kind of stuff from a summer movie, but sometimes the politics felt a little like they do in the Star Wars prequels ... like something much talked about but ultimately irrelevant. But in this area, I admit, I was probably pretty untrusting.

Great to exchange thoughts with you, as always. I'm going to be checking out your review this weekend.

Jason Bellamy said...

It seemed to me that the critics ganged up on the film because of its old-fashioned multiplicity, but now I wonder if it simply sets up too many strands without enough pay-offs later.

FilmDr: Yeah, I'd say the movie is just without enough payoffs period, regardless of the multiple strands. As for that scene of the arrow at the end ... I'm glad you mentioned it. What a playful shot that is, and yet how odd it seems, compared to the rest of the film. Likewise, there's that moment in the Robin/Marion "flirtation" when she misunderstands his comment and says that her wedding night whoopie was over quickly and unmemorable. It's an old joke, but usually a successful one. In my packed screening, it got one very delayed chuckle. I don't think the joke itself or the delivery was the problem. It's the fact that the joke comes from a different direction and spirit than the film had us conditioned to expect. And I think that ties back to the multiple strands you mentioned. Not to imply that movies can't be complex or diverse, but Robin Hood has a bit of an identity crisis.

Hokahey said...

...Helgeland mistakenly allows him to translate the phrase as “Never give up.” How reductive! It’s like learning that The Beatles think “Let it be” means “Don’t worry, be happy." (I almost laughed when Robin voiced his conclusion.)

Well said, and how reductive the whole thing is!

I liked "moments" (not lasting literal minutes) in this movie. Besides the widescreen shot you open your discussion with, I liked the shots of the siege battle going on in the background while the common soldiers gamble or brawl or do whatever. That was very realistic, grubby, atmospheric, and imaginative.

But Scott lacks imagination throughout most of this film - and the whole thing feels tired. Scott is great at setting up realistic scenes of English peasant life with muddy roads, fields beyond, and geese and chickens wandering around in the foreground. Now if he had a compelling story to set in those scenes ...

Please, no more high-speed shutter effect for me. I shutter at the thought.