'Robin Hood': Ye Olde Bait-And-Switch, By Kurt Loder

Russell Crowe in search of Sherwood Forest.

Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" is brilliant, in a way. Faced with the fact that filmmakers have been cranking out pictures about the scalawag of Sherwood Forest for more than a hundred years now, the director and his writers must have pondered at length how to put a unique spin on the oft-told tale. Their brainstorm: Don't tell it. Scott's movie, very oddly, is actually a prequel -- a sort of origin story for a better Robin Hood movie that doesn't exist.

So Robin Hood fans hoping for some of the dash and wit of the classic films that starred Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn should set their expectation meters to Off. The simple pleasure of a few acrobatic hours with Robin and his Merry Men — and the blundering Sheriff of Nottingham, the chubby Friar Tuck, the evil Prince John and the lovely Maid Marion — is not forthcoming. True, there is a Sheriff of Nottingham loitering around the edges of the action; also some men called Little John, Will Scarlet and Allan A'Dayle, although they're not very merry. Mark Addy's mead-sipping Friar Tuck is a fairly lively character, but Prince John, played here by Oscar Isaac, is an unthreatening buffoon, and Marion, played by Cate Blanchett, is hardly the elegant beauty of lore — at one point we get a closeup of her washing clots of mud off her bare feet.

Russell Crowe, in his fifth collaboration with Scott, dispenses with Robin's traditional tights and feathered cap, which is not a great loss; but he also dispenses with the character's traditional high spirits, which is. In fact, the Robin cobbled together by writers Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris isn't even the jaunty rogue nobleman of earlier versions of the story; here, he's just a glum yeoman called Robin Longstride, a loyal archer in the service of good King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). As the movie opens, in 1199, Richard and his weary men are returning from the latest Crusade in the Holy Lands. They're plundering their way through France en route to England, where Richard's conniving brother, Prince John, has his eye on the royal crown. John is planning to dump his current princess and marry sultry young Isabella of Angoulême (Léa Seydoux), niece of the French King Philip (Jonathan Zaccai); then, with the help of his henchman, the devious Godfrey (Mark Strong in a villainous black cloak), John will terminate his hated sibling, creating an agreeable vacancy on the English throne. Across the Channel, King Philip is salivating over this scenario, too — with the weakling John in charge, the French monarch feels he will have no trouble invading England and bending it to his imperial will.

Much research has gone into getting all this medieval backstory right (or somewhat right). But the heavy scholarship turns the movie into what seems like a very long history lesson delivered in a loud, dark and unusually muddy lecture hall. The endless battles, skirmishes and castle-stormings, accompanied by the usual arrow swarms, head-axings and boiling-oil downpours, are nothing we haven't seen before. (Although in one seaside battle, with enemy ships crashing up onto the beach and much slaughter in the water, we half-expect Tom Hanks to come wandering through in search of Private Spielberg.) Even more familiar are the inevitable roistering peasants, with their campfire rabbit roasts and sloshy revels. ("More wine!") And while some of the dialogue is newly minted, that's not always a good thing. ("An English princess shut out of her husband's bedroom by a piece of French pastry?")

In the midst of one bloody fray, Robin is beseeched by a dying knight to take his sword and return it to the knight's father in faraway Nottingham. ("I've heard of Nottingham," says Crowe, as if dimly recalling a more enjoyable movie.) The father is the ancient Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), and he implores Robin, upon his arrival, to remain at the family castle and impersonate his dead son (surely the servants won't notice). This also entails moving Robin into the bedchamber of the son's now-widowed wife, Marion. At this juncture we get the priceless scene in which Robin, preparing to turn in on their first night together, but still encased in battle gear, says to her, "I'll need some help with the chainmail."

Crowe and Blanchett are too good for these roles. Crowe is heavily morose throughout the film, and Blanchett is photographed in unflattering ways that subvert her angular beauty. And the emotionally anemic script doesn't allow them to work up a romantic glow — a serious shortcoming in a story set in the age of chivalry.

After two hours and 20 minutes of watching charmless characters slogging about in grim, mucky conflict, we're more than ready to celebrate the rolling of the end-credits. But then we get a final scene in which the Sheriff of Nottingham asks for a nail to hang a wanted poster on a tree — and an arrow comes flying in to do the job for him. This, of course, is where the traditional Robin Hood story begins. As Scott's misbegotten prologue demonstrates, there's a very good reason for that.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Letters To Juliet," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Robin Hood."

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