ROBIN HOOD, directed by Ridley Scott, written by Brian Helgeland, 131 minutes, rated PG-13.
The best thing that can be said about the new Ridley Scott movie, “Robin Hood,” is that it wasn’t presented in 3-D. You can just image the horror of Russell Crowe’s ego flying at you from the screen. Unfortunately, the film skirts that cliche to embrace another — it’s yet another Hollywood reboot, one that huffs and puffs to right itself beneath the bloat of its own weight.
Brian Helgeland based the film on a story he co-wrote with Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Vorus, and what they created is a movie stripped of any sense of humor or wit. While nobody coming to it will expect the far-out absurdity of “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” it isn’t out of the question to think that they might have hoped for something close to Errol Flynn’s take on the tale.
But forget that.
There is no flight-of-fancy swordplay here, no glimmer that anyone came to have a good time. This is a meat-and-potatoes version, caked in violence, blood and mud, swallowed down with a few gallons of mead, and then belched onto the screen in some kind of manly overture.
Set in 12th century England, the film is grim and mostly flat, with the occasional fight sequence staged to break up the monotony. Since Scott treats his movie as an origins story, much as, say, Christopher Nolan did in “Batman Begins,” we thus need to slog through reams of exposition about how the commoner Robin Longstride, played by Russell Crowe, became the epic Robin Hood of lore. If this makes it sound as if Scott is treating his movie as a superhero movie, it’s because he is. And he should have reconsidered.
We get every bit of the backstory — and then some — before the movie turns to the film’s present and finds Robin returning from the Third Crusade, still good with an arrow but crushed by the death of King Richard the Lionheart, played by Danny Huston.
Since what ensues is as complex as George “Rentboy” Rekers is dense, let’s throw it all in a boiling pot and reduce it to its essence: Richard’s death ignites within Robin a need to continue his fight, and so circumstances lead him to assemble an army to bring down the French. Meanwhile, Lady Marion, played by Cate Blanchett, has lost her husband, might lose her land, has a mild flirtation with Robin, grimaces on cue and — channeling her inner feminist — takes a sword of her own to fight the good fight against Sir Godfrey, played by Mark Strong, who is the film’s chief villain.
Onward it goes, and yet where’s the momentum? Some scenes rise to the occasion, but with the exception of the film’s last five minutes, when Crowe finally flashes a smile, this “Robin Hood” is a frowning, brooding bust at best.
All of this is so typical of Crowe, who spits testosterone onscreen and off. It figures that he would want to play a humorless version of “Robin Hood,” lest any lightness of touch be considered anything other than just someone comfortable enough with himself to have a grand time onscreen. Nice cinematography and set design aside, “Robin Hood” fails at its most basic level — it’s not particularly entertaining, and as such, it’s not particularly worth your time. Grade: C-
On DVD and Blu-ray disc
INVICTUS, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Anthony Peckham, 134 minutes, rated PG-13.
In Latin, the title for Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” means “invincible” or “unconquered,” which is a nice slice of symmetry since the word itself could describe Eastwood’s own career. Not many could have triumphed over those orangutan-infused “Any Which Way But Loose” movies he was saddled with in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but Eastwood did — and in the process, he went on to become one of our most important, daring and insightful directors.
“Invictus” also is the title of a poem William Ernest Henley wrote that came to mean a great deal to Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, during his nearly three decades in prison. The film opens in South Africa not long after Mandela was released from prison. A few years pass, elections are held and Mandela becomes that country’s first black president. To say the least, the time was tumultuous, but Mandela, masterfully played by Freeman in one of last year’s best performances, nevertheless remained steadfast in his belief about how to repair a country broken by the very apartheid that led to his own imprisonment.
His intent was the unification of all peoples — white and black — but how to do so when even his own staff questioned and resisted his ideas? For Mandela, the answer was to greet his opposition with the warmth and kindness he himself didn’t receive in the cellblock that was his home for all those years. No fool, Mandela knew kindness and broad smiles weren’t enough, are they ever in politics — or in life?, and so he looked for a hook in which all races could lose themselves and become an unknowing, cheering collective. Turns out, the key to this was the game of rugby.
With the World Cup looming, Mandela hung his hopes on the Springboks, a team led by Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, that was more accustomed to losing than to winning. And yet Mandela wooed the team, which was comprised mostly of brutish white men. He got close to Francois, who was raised by a father who openly ridiculed blacks. He had tea with Francois and shared an inspirational talk. And as Francois left this encounter — and other encounters he would share with Mandela — he became empowered to inspire his team to potential greatness as the World Cup drew near.
On paper, all of this sounds cliche and forced, and while the movie is tainted with elements of each, the good news is that it’s overwhelmed by neither.
Eastwood places his focus on his characters and also on the curious intricacies of rugby itself, which provides much of the action. For those who don’t recall the time in which the film takes place (mid-’90s), adding further interest is how Eastwood draws tension from the fact that whenever Mandela appeared at a public event, which was often, there was an ongoing threat that he could be assassinated at any moment. It’s that suspense, these performances and Eastwood’s smooth handling of all of it that makes “Invictus” a pleasant surprise. Grade: B+
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.