Carlo Rotella

Robin Hood: Prince of peeves

A big angry baby fights back against taxes

By Carlo Rotella
May 24, 2010

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I FINALLY managed to slip away to a weekday matinee of “Robin Hood.’’ It provided some of the pleasures I count on in a swordfight movie: the surge and clatter of armored men on horseback, dire pronouncements voiced by over-actors wearing flowing garments, blowouts featuring lute jams and the swilling of mead, the 12th-century ball-peen hammer our hero wields in the climactic battle. But it’s a mostly dispiriting and labored affair, reeking of bet-hedging script rewrites and joyless calculation. And it’s hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation — that scotches any entertainment to be derived from deft supporting performances and Ridley Scott’s gift for visual elegance.

I don’t require deep thought from a movie. An action movie, especially, can give complete satisfaction even if — or even because — all it cares about is how to storm or defend a village. (Case in point: “The Thirteenth Warrior,’’ a galumphing swordfight movie I also played hookey from work to see, and which I will defend against all comers, even cannibals who think they’re bears.) But “Robin Hood,’’ which succeeds in screwing up a nearly foolproof formula, is like a chronically irate, not-very-bright guest who ruins a cookout on an otherwise perfect day with his rants about how his sacred freedoms have been infringed by agents of the new world order who require him to pay taxes and register his guns.

It’s true that resisting onerous taxes is a traditional theme of Robin Hood stories. The best exchange on the subject is in “The Adventures of Robin Hood’’ (1938), starring Errol Flynn: When Robin describes his people as “overtaxed, overworked, and paid off with a knife, a club, or a rope,’’ Marian exclaims, “Why, you speak treason,’’ and Robin answers, “Fluently.’’ Robin Hood stories have often been used to imagine how good citizens can stand up to bad government, but this year’s version poses the problem so oafishly that it kills any interest remaining in it.

Voices in the movie preach that everyone should be free to enjoy God’s bounty as he or she wishes (so, should I choose to enjoy God’s bounty in the form of a pirated version of the movie, Universal would no doubt endorse my freedom to do so and protect me from prosecution by a meddlesome government). Taxes — any taxes at all — are nothing more than a vile scheme hatched by the French to undermine English virtue in advance of an invasion. They don’t use black helicopters to cross the Channel, but you get the idea. When the louche King John says, “Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm,’’ a fairly unobjectionable statement of social fact, it’s meant to serve as proof that he’s unfit to rule because he’s subject to depraved foreign influences.

And Russell Crowe, miscast as Robin, plays a big part in making the movie seem childish. His star persona has settled into a rut: he’s extremely angry, with a note of little-boy hurt running beneath the anger. The rudimentary simplicity of Crowe’s baffled rage makes Clint Eastwood look like a master of thespic nuance in comparison. Crowe is mad in the way that a toddler or a baby is mad: he’s petulant, frowning and wagging his head, failing to understand how it could be that someone took away the ball he was playing with. He wants that ball back, and to get it he’s willing to overthrow the king of England or the emperor of Rome or whoever else is in his way.

If a character played by, say, Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, or even Eastwood or Flynn, were to suggest that taxes are too high, there’s a good chance that after reflecting on it while watching him get the best of some worthy opponents you might come to agree. But when Crowe as Robin complains about taxes, awkwardly slipcovering the complaint with anachronistic talk about how to “empower’’ the people, he’s just an enormous stubbly baby who needs a diaper change, a nap, and lessons in how the grown-up world works. We already have too many people around who think being angry counts as a legitimate political philosophy and who don’t want to pay taxes because, well, they’re angry.

If what you’re after at the movies is the spectacle of an infantile action hero oppressed by the rule of a perverse despotic regime, forget about “Robin Hood’’ and get four for the price of one in “Babies,’’ the documentary that follows four children in different countries from birth to first steps. Parents and other adults truss the babies like packages, allow them to play with toys that frustrate and endanger them, bewilder them with incomprehensible commands, and fail to prevent siblings and other animals from messing with them. The babies, for their part, display admirable stoicism and good cheer. There’s only one tantrum in the movie, a heroic one, and, unlike any of Crowe’s, it’s hilarious and evokes our sympathy.

Carlo Rotella, a guest columnist, is director of American Studies at Boston College.

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