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.