The movie played okay at the press screening Wednesday morning. No seat slapping, booing, or cheering. Judging from early reviews and the folks I’ve spoken to, it’s one of those good-not-great reactions, which given its substantial cost–and whatever the “real” figure is, the movie is hugely expensive–this movie is doomed. Its $200-million budget is up there on the screen. It’s not-so-merry old 12th-century England, with many visual effects, from a fleet of ships on the high seas, multiple big-scale battles, castles, horses, cauldrons, bows and arrows to burning chateaus and villages. This is a big-scale ambitious period epic in the 60s grand tradition. It seeks to retell a well-worn tale, to put old wine in a shiny new bottle.
Imagine’s Brian Grazer is one of the last of the old-school Hollywood producers who can still get his studio (Universal, which sacrificed two cochairmen over this movie, among others) to green-light a tentpole wannabe at a stratospheric budget by selling the elements: iconic myth: check. Star/director combo who have delivered big bucks on similar material in the past: check. So Universal opened up their coffers to this magic formula, foolishly, I think. If this movie cost more than $200 million, it’s doomed. Ten years ago with five Oscar wins behind it, Gladiator cost $103 million and grossed $187 million domestic and $487 million worldwide.
Look, these clever, experienced filmmakers put a lot of gorgeous scenery, costumes, and glorious set-pieces up there for us to enjoy. The opening siege, with King Richard the Lion Heart storming a French castle with his army, master archer Robin Longstride among them (establishing his honor and heroism), is a masterful piece of work. Nobody does battles better than Scott. He’s a master.
So this is not a movie to dismiss outright. Writer Brian Helgeland does a solid job constructing a father-son relationship between Max Von Sydow and Robin, and a believable slow-build romance between Robin and Marian (Cate Blanchett, with hair that goes on for miles). (SPOILER: They go a tad too far with the revisionist feminism: the bit where she shows up on the battlefield is ludicrous; her chain mail was “plastic,” admitted Blanchett.)
Crowe is a fine, serious actor who takes his craft a mite too seriously. I suspect that making him a producer (“they needed somebody else to blame,” he said) and catering to his whims about his character’s motivation, some of them good ones–it was his idea to have Marian take off his chain mail–helped to tilt the movie toward the title character’s grim heroics. There’s not much humor about the man. Suddenly a mere archer is not only running battles for the King of England (incompetent though John may be) but contributing to that great milestone in English history, the Magna Carta!
That’s not our Robin Hood, leader of the merry rebel band in Sherwood Forest. If we want that legend, we’ll have to hope that the movie breaks Universal’s magic number to trigger a sequel–that’s where the movie leaves off. (Their original plan was a seven and a half hour film; the briefly glimpsed Sheriff of Nottingham, who was to figure in the tale, must be in a later, as yet unwritten, chapter.) In other words, Robin Hood is yet another origin myth. I want to see the sequel: that’s not the issue. The question is whether Universal will be able to afford it.
Truth is, Crowe may have starred in some big movies and makes a burly heroic leading man–he looks great when he takes off his shirt, and as Blanchett suggested, his leather pants are “pretty fetching”–but he’s not a movie star. That paradigm is on the way out, but Crowe doesn’t know it. The way he commandeered the press conference, suggesting that a latter-day Robin Hood would want to fight against the monopolistic media, making fun of reporters’ accents, shaking his butt at the press corps, and touting his contribution to the movie, was unattractive. He has to be the smartest guy in the room. Wisely, Grazer kept uncharacteristically mum. He knows when to give Crowe the spotlight.