There are two kinds of bad films: actively bad and passively bad.
Actively bad movies are engaging. They’re technically competent but utterly nonsensical (and/or offensive), or else so astoundingly inept in every conceivable way that they’re mesmerizing. The greatest actively bad films think they’re masterpieces and carry themselves with an unearned aura of importance. But whatever subgroup of active badness a film falls into, it’s fun. It grabs you. It has personality, attitude, a sense of life.
The passively bad film offers no such compensations. It’s jumbled, tangled, sluggish, with different impulses working at cross-purposes and canceling each other out. It never gets a handle on what it wants to say or why it wants to say it, and it has a tendency to pander. Watching a passively bad film is like trying to swim through Jell-O. It wears you out and saps your spirit. By the end, you feel deflated and defeated, as if you’ve spent several hours coolly waiting in line at a bus station or doctor’s office or the DMV only to have the functionary behind the glass put up a “Closed” sign and tell you to try again tomorrow.
Passive badness, thy name is “Robin Hood.”
Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”), this “Robin” wants to be a gritty historical epic laden with Wikipedia factoids, “Godfather”-style intrigue, and people with oily hair and bad teeth (when this film’s Robin Hood gets invited to a nice dinner, he’s asked to take a bath first because he smells). At the same time, it wants to be a popcorn movie stocked with bawdy humor, gym-chiseled hunks and “crowdpleasing” moments (Russell Crowe’s Robin zaps foes with his bow-and-arrow from a half-mile off; Cate Blanchett’s Maid Marion gets pawed by a would-be-rapist soldier and dispatches him with a face kick).
I don’t object to either mode. Nor do I object to a film trying to fuse them; it’s been done before, with varying degrees of success (“The Last of the Mohicans,” “Queen Margot,” “Elizabeth,” “Rob Roy”). Unfortunately, “Robin Hood” fails to reconcile the two modes and can’t commit to either.
Remember in all those other Robin Hood films how Robin would assemble an eccentric band of merry men, steal from the rich and give to the poor, swing on ropes and win archery contests and the like? There’s little of that here. Russell Crowe’s Robin isn’t even the historically familiar Robin character, Robin of Loxley. He’s Robin Longstride, an archer working his way back from the Crusades in the employ of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), a kind man who dies fighting the French. Our Robin assumes the identity of Robin of Loxley, a dying fellow soldier who asks our Robin to carry a sword belonging to his aged, blind father-in-law, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), home to the family’s farm. Our Robin returns to England — helping prevent the dead king’s crown from being filched by Frenchmen in the process — and assumes the other Robin’s identity. This leads to a “Return of Martin Guerre”-type situation wherein our Robin strolls around the community posing as Robin of Loxley and everyone sort of collectively agrees to pretend that he is that Robin, even though, to my knowledge, Sir Walter Loxley is the only blind character in the picture.
Meanwhile, the dead king’s spoiled, selfish brother John (Oscar Isaac) contrives to marry his French mistress, Angouleme (Lea Seydoux), and pay off the nation’s war debts by taxing the hell out of the peasantry. Falling at it does some 40 minutes into the film’s nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, you might expect the king’s treasury-fattening gambit to set up the familiar, appealing tale of Robin Hood as justice-seeking folk hero. But it doesn’t. Every classically Hoodian situation is encrusted with multiple layers of historical parentheses — and the parentheses are what Scott and Helgeland are really interested in. The king’s misuse of his power to tax is treated less as audience provocation than a pretext to show how medieval governments paid for their foreign adventures (not too differently from how modern governments do it, apparently). And when Robin and his men interdict a shipment of the local church’s seed and use it to revive Marion’s fading farm, the event seems less about establishing Robin’s nobility and sense of justice than illustrating the church’s self-interested nature.