Film Review: Robin Hood Modernizes the Classic Tale (Again) For No Real Reason

on November 20, 2018, 2:38pm

The Pitch: As Robin Hood helpfully informs you within its first seconds, “forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.” Tabling for a moment the fact that Robin Hood is not itself known to be a common bedtime story, it’s time once again for one of the great, open-source fables to be adapted anew. The hallmarks are the same: Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton), a lord of noble birth, returns from his enlistment in the Crusades to a Nottingham run by a cruel Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn). Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor, although Robin Hood does a fair bit of waffling on that idea throughout. There’s a Marian (Eve Hewson), a Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), and for some reason there’s also Jamie Dornan. Otherwise, this Robin Hood looks like a lot of other things audiences might half-recognize, but it barely resembles the classic story on which it’s based.

Call Him “Rob”: The movie does, and often. It’s ridiculous. Moving on.

Under The Hood: At times, this latest update of the Robin Hood story functions a little bit like one of those face-or-the-vase pictures used in psychological tests. You take away whatever your eye catches first. Here, however, that idea functions in service of being able to suss out which corner of recent popular culture the film is cravenly attempting to milk for loose change. Thanks to the hood and the curious costuming choice of Nottingham’s impoverished being clad in fitted leather, there are some major aesthetic similarities to the Assassin’s Creed games. The dulled gray-and-black palette of so many setpieces recalls any number of post-Snyder action flicks. Between Egerton’s cocksure swagger and the near-constant speed ramping, there’s some of the kinetic Kingsman energy in there. It’s briefly a brutal Crusades film, shot in the sandy beige tones of so many Middle Eastern-set war films of recent vintage. There’s a ridiculous, friendship-based training montage in the Rocky mold.

Needless to say, Robin Hood lacks a definitive identity. Director Otto Bathurst attempts to rope these many disparate influences together into something resembling a coherent movie, but he was probably doomed from the start. Even for Lionsgate, who ran the Divergent series so far into the ground that it never actually ended, Robin Hood is an especially craven attempt to kick-start a new franchise by latching onto the hot trends of the era. From the team-gathering feel of many of the early scenes to a hilarious late-film tease for a possible sequel, Robin Hood exudes desperation at almost every step. It’s a lot of things, clearly, but it’s barely a movie.

Tango & Cash, The Medieval Years: It’s a shame the film spends so much time fluctuating between absurd and unbearable, because Robin Hood occasionally threatens to become a little bit fun. It’s clear most of the key parties involved know what kind of movie they’re doing, particularly Egerton as Robin and Jamie Foxx as John. (No “Little” here.) John is recast as an Arabic warrior who loses his son to the Church-funded English army of the Crusades, and Robin as the English soldier who breaks ranks in the futile hope of righting a clear wrong. The duo’s subsequent scenes together seem to come from an entirely different buddy-comedy action film, but they bring a bit of levity to a movie otherwise obsessed with glowering as much as possible. Given how unbearably self-serious much of Robin Hood is, at least its leads seem to be having a good enough time.

Uh, Is Robin Hood Antifa Now?: Robin Hood might not be a good movie, but in at least a political sense, it’s a pretty interesting one. In this iteration of the tale, Robin is essentially radicalized by the senseless violence of his time at war. Witnessing what are clearly English atrocities, his by-night Nottingham robberies become a way of righting senseless wrongs, battling repressive social policies, and attempting to bring down a corrupt church-state regime. Political disruption is central to this version of the tale, right up to the point where Egerton has to deliver a speech about wealth redistribution to a slum full of what kind of look like the ravers from The Matrix Reloaded. Given the ugliness of the film elsewhere, it’s tough to argue for Robin Hood as some kind of subversive work, but at least it approximates the anti-oligarchic sentiments of its source material in a real way.

The Verdict: A fair deal of the time, Robin Hood is goofy enough to be a little bit of fun in that bad-movie way, but there’s a nastiness to some of it that often undercuts any sense of play. Mendelsohn’s Sheriff is brutally vicious, in that lurid way that overwritten modern villains are in order to slip in the kind of nastiness that antiheroes can no longer pull off. Marian is threatened with sexual assault more than once onscreen. The entire Crusades storyline, while clearly placed in the film in order to argue for their horrors, trades on the slaughter of faceless Arabs for several minutes of action-packed screentime before any attempts at thoughtful reflection are actually made. It’s a weirdly unpleasant action movie, even for the modern update of an ostensible lark.

The problem with Robin Hood trying to be so many things, as has often been the case with any number of overstuffed franchise hopefuls in recent years, is that none of its attempts actually land for long. Even when it’s briefly diverting, it jumps back into tired, Star Wars-ian handwringing about the absolute corruption of absolute power before long. When it finds a sense of fun, it starts blowing things up in a way preposterous for the era simply because “badass” seems to be the vague default state of any directionless action movie these days. There’s nothing particularly memorable about Robin Hood even when you’re laughing at it, and that may be one of the saddest fates a movie can meet.

Where’s It Playing?: Robin Hood will help families around the world ring in the holidays by implying that the Catholic Church invented Hell as a fear tactic on November 20th.