Every few years, someone makes a valiant attempt to revitalize the Robin Hood legend for a new era. It’s always a gamble, as cinematic Robin Hoods like Errol Flynn, a certain Disney fox, and yes, even Kevin Costner (not to mention Cary Elwes) cast a long shadow. But every generation should need, even crave, a Robin Hood of their own, just as they do a Batman or a James Bond. And unlike both of those tools of law and order, there’s a rebellious, rock n’ roll vibe inherent in the very basics of the legend of Robin of Locksley. When the creeping shadow of tyranny falls across the land, so rises a man with the spirit to do what must be done, usually to “rob from the rich and give to the poor.”
And so we have Robin Hood 2018 from director Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders, Black Mirror). While billed as a prequel, or some kind of radical reinvention of the legend, the basics are all in place. Robin of Locksley is a nobleman who bristles under the heel of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and decides to risk life, limb, and reputation as an outlaw, assembling a loyal following along the way. It even makes room for recent additions to the legend, such as how 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves turned him into a soldier of King Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades, a flourish that was also picked up for Ridley Scott’s somewhat regrettable 2010 film, but that nevertheless adds one additional patina of historical detail to a figure that is otherwise difficult to pin to reality.
Here, Robin (Taron Egerton) is a nobleman, but one who resents his station and others like him. He meets and falls in love with Marian (Eve Hewson) while she attempts to steal a horse from his stables, sparking a whirlwind romance… until he is drafted into service to fight in the Middle East. Of course this is just a pretense for the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) to declare him dead and steal his money and property. When Robin returns, hardened by the horrors he has witnessed, he takes up arms against the Sheriff, and the arrows fly.
You can’t screw this up, right? Well…
Egerton’s Robin, or “Rob” as he is infuriatingly referred to throughout the film, fluctuates between sullen and smug, usually with little indication of why he’s indulging in either mood. The only thing less convincing than his Robin of Locksley, the commoner’s nobleman, is Rob the soldier, or perhaps Robin Hood the heroic leader of men. It’s tough to choose, as they’re all equally charmless.
Egerton is surrounded by at least two cast members who deserve far better. Jamie Foxx is here as this film’s rough equivalent of Little John, who Rob meets in combat while on patrol in the Crusades, and who follows the future outlaw king back to England for comically vague reasons. Foxx somehow manages to bring a modicum of intensity and wit to an essentially thankless role, but he isn’t given much to work with. There’s a similar tragedy in seeing Ben Mendelsohn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, a role that he should be perfect for, yet he’s saddled with abysmal dialogue and wears a costume that looks as if he wandered into the wrong trailer during the production of Rogue One before being hurried on to the set of Robin Hood. The less said about Jamie Dornan’s wooden Will Scarlett and his generally incomprehensible character arc, the better. And it would seem the screenwriters agree given his screentime.
Nottingham itself looks like a fourth-generation suburb of Katniss Everdeen’s Panem during a recession, with design choices flung together from any number of warmed over YA adaptations of the last five years. The costume choices fall somewhere between “stylish yet sensible club ready ren-faire cosplay” and “background character from agrarian society planet on Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Nowhere is this more glaring than in a bizarre Met Gala-esque party thrown for the arriving (and villainous, natch) Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham picking up a paycheck). Were this done with any sense of style, and had Robin Hood attempted to lean into its weird incongruousness for at least a few minutes, we might have had something. Instead I’m left wondering how Marian (who is given nothing whatsoever to do) can be so perfectly made up at all times while wearing what appear to be knit sweaters from Old Navy.
For all of this film’s celebration of anachronism, nothing feels more immediately outdated than its action scenes. The nadir is an incomprehensible horse and cart chase around some portion of Nottingham (or is it the mines?) where sulfur pits fire from the ground like an ’80s dystopia movie with twice the budget and half the charm. Okay, perhaps the training montage, complete with “Rob” bench-pressing wagon wheels and hauling chains around while Foxx’s Little John barks tough love encouragement at him is worse. And let’s not forget the few moments toward the end where it appears to try and pull off the tone of a heist movie while the residents of Nottingham fling molotov cocktails at the Sheriff’s riot police…. Anyway, all of this is to say that Guy Ritchie’s insufferable King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is John Boorman’s Excalibur by comparison. Fortunately, Robin Hood is a whole 10 minutes shorter.
Demanding historical accuracy in a Robin Hood movie is, of course, a fool’s errand. Still, if anyone can tell me what it is that the Sheriff, the Cardinal, and the “Arabians” (yes, you read that right) are actually conspiring against or for, please let me know. It’s as vague as the purpose of “the mines” around Nottingham, just as said mines are indistinguishable from the living quarters of the common people. All this movie makes clear is that a large sum of money will change hands, and that somehow the Sheriff and members of the Church are working with their sworn enemies in the Crusades. If this is intended to be an oblique nod to nonsensical “9/11 was an inside job” magical thinking that pervades YouTube, your Facebook timeline, and Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s an even more spectacular failure than that kind of philosophizing usually leads to.
In fact, nearly all of this film’s attempts at political awareness end up backfiring. Whether it’s “Rob” himself firing up a crowd with talk about “redistribution of wealth,” the fact that the scenes in the Crusades look suspiciously like the Iraq War (right down to the desert camo armor of the Crusaders themselves), or the allusions to abuse within the Catholic Church (of which the Sheriff is a victim), Robin Hood tries so very hard to be relevant. Instead its transparency, complete with the Sheriff switching gears from George W. Bush (“they hate us for our freedom”) to Donald Trump (“and they’ll be coming here soon to do whatever they please!”) in the space of a sentence plays more like a parody of “liberal Hollywood values” than any coherent political statement. I can charitably say that this particular moralizing is unlikely to change any minds. A good outlaw movie should have something to say about the world in which it’s made–and holy moley, do we need one of those right now–but Robin Hood is not a good outlaw movie. Or a good Robin Hood movie. Or a good movie at all.