I'm Joe Morgenstern, the film critic of The Wall Street Journal.
Of all the Robin Hoods that have come and gone, at least one of them wondrously zestful -- that's Errol Flynn's -- and one of them was woefully zonked -- that's Kevin Costner's. Up to now, the only absurd one has been Mel Brooks's send-up, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." Yet Ridley Scott's new version achieves an absurdity all its own. It's an ersatz epic about men in fights -- grim fights, grinding battles, clanking combats that are repetitive and, in a movie that runs 140 minutes, almost endless. Russell Crowe fights a losing battle against Brian Helgeland's turgid script, and the production's almost total, and truly absurd, absence of fun.
"The more the merrier," Robin says at one point. If only. The sole merriment outbreak occurs, perversely, at the very end, when all the battles have ceased and Robin and his men are regrouping in the forest. Until then, this phenomenally monotonous "Robin Hood" dwells on Robin's beginnings as a commoner who impersonates a knight, takes up arms against ruthless King John and his treacherous henchmen, unifies England against a French invasion and, as if that weren't enough, is mainly responsible for drawing up the Magna Carta. (Except that the king refuses to sign the darned thing, so where does that leave England now?)
Robin's romance with Cate Blanchett's Marion doesn't strike many sparks, even though their early scenes promise a comical taming of the shrew. Of course, comedy and romance aren't what the director's reputation has been built on. A Ridley Scott film promises spectacle laced by character that's grounded in action. Although "Gladiator" didn't delve into the psyche of Russell Crowe's incorruptible Maximus, you still sensed the man of the soil he once was, and the lover he used to be. This Robin Hood comes equipped with a special heritage -- his father was a mason, but he was also a visionary and a philosopher. Instead of deepening Robin's character, though, such info only creates the impression of a hero grounded in psychobabble. And Crowe comes off as slightly ridiculous in a climactic show of heroism that may have been meant as a cheerful nod to Maximus, yet misfires all the same.
"Robin Hood" looks fairly spectacular from time to time -- an incendiary attack on a French chateau, a royal flotilla sailing serenely up the Thames. But most of the martial clashes are interchangeable, the digital effects sometimes ring false (the French armada floating on Channel waves that could be crinkled cellophane) and the big set pieces are all over the place. The armada's barges are modeled on American landing craft at Omaha Beach, while the climactic battle beneath the cliffs of Dover evokes "Saving Private Ryan," "Henry V," "Chimes at Midnight" and even, in a clumsily staged squeezing together of two ships, the trash compactor scene in "Star Wars." The cast includes Oscar Isaac, William Hurt, Eileen Atkins and Mark Strong. His villainy as the vile Godfrey outvivids Robin's righteousness.
I'm Joe Morgenstern, and I'll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.