Synopsis – A war-hardened Crusader and his Moorish commander mount an audacious revolt against the corrupt English crown in a thrilling action-adventure packed with gritty battlefield exploits, mind-blowing fight choreography, and a timeless romance.
My Take – It is quite clear that if you have never heard the tale of Robin Hood, the nobleman who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, you have been living under a rock. Being the famous symbol of hope in a time of poverty and struggle, the character has appeared in countless films and has been part of folklore for over 600 years. Some more popular than others, still retaining the popularity for being bold, cheerful, and flamboyant, the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks version and the 1938 Errol Flynn version are arguably considered as the character’s best iterations, followed closely by the 1973 Disney animated classic.
While a few goofy versions popped up in the middle (including one from Mel Brooks), the legendary heroic outlaw has since then moved on toward a depressing griminess in the form of the Kevin Costner led Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and the Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett starring Robin Hood (2010) from director Ridley Scott. In this latest re-telling, director Otto Bathurst, writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, and producers Leonardo DiCaprio and Lionsgate, also slavishly follows that trend, by turning the folklore into a more complex and action packed thrill ride, filled with huge sets and a price tag of $100 million. Unfortunately the results are an over-long mess, with solid new ideas, but lackluster execution. Sure, the film has a likable hard and gritty edge, but the story itself is so done to death.
Even though director Bathurst doesn’t fail to keep you glued with his overabundance of action sequences and clear retro-fitting of the mythology to an action-heist film, the plot just drags under its feet and we are left with nothing but a plenty of sinister people making speeches or screaming at the top of their lungs. While I do believe that the film doesn’t deserves the level of hate it’s receiving, especially for giving the lead a Batman/Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen/Green Arrow personality spin, it does deserve criticism for the multiple negatives that plague it. For example how the extensively noticeable CGI, poor script and weak dialogue ends up overshadowing the fun set-pieces, which is a shame considering Taron Egerton really is the perfect Hood.
The story follows Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton), a wealthy lord in Nottingham, who falls madly in love when he catches Marian (Eve Hewson) while attempting to steal his horse. However, their romance is interrupted when Robin is drafted to joins the Crusaders in their fight in the Middle East. After four years away Robin is finally sent home after attacking his fellow men for killing an innocent prisoner and helping the prisoner’s father Yahya aka John (Jamie Foxx), a master archer, to escape. But when he returns, he finds his home in ruins and land ravaged by heavy taxes with the poor living under the thumb of the power-hungry sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) and the church.
Devastated that Marian has also moved on with Will “Scarlet” Tillman (Jamie Dornan), the champion of the underclass, Robin decides to exact his revenge on the sheriff and his supporters, but John convinces him otherwise. Training him to become a heroic thief instead, someone who can shake the foundations of those in charge, Robin pulls off several daring robberies under the guise of ‘The Hood’ and slowly becomes beacon of hope to the people, all the while using his real name and position to become close to the sheriff.
Despite Tim Minchin’s Friar Tuck giving us a voice-over to “forget what we already know”, and his attempts at convincing us this story is going to be something new; the screenplay by Ben Chandler and David James Kelly begins by checking all the necessary boxes that we are already well familiar with. The original story is a good one, and it always seems especially relevant in a society’s more trying times, but the shaky, sloppy, numbing mess turned in by director Otto Bathurst, a TV veteran making his feature debut, doesn’t seem to have anything motivating it. Instead, the latest take on this classic character offers an empty appropriation of Robin Hood character names and slaps them on people in a mishmash of derivative fantasy story-lines: a little Zorro here, some V for Vendetta there, a bit of The CW‘s Arrow here, a dash of Star Wars villainy there. 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 film these days.
But what’s worse is that the film lacks a definitive identity, as director Otto Bathurst attempts to rope these many disparate influences together into something resembling a coherent film, but he was probably doomed from the start. A fair deal of the time, the film is goofy enough to be a little bit of fun in that bad-film way, but there’s a nastiness to some of it that often undercuts any sense of play. This one might not be a good film, 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 Robin 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 the film as some kind of subversive work, but at least it approximates the anti-oligarchic sentiments of its source material in a real way.
Then there are obnoxious dialogues about the church and how priests plan to use it for power and greed. You don’t say such things my lordship, especially when there are only two people in the room and both of them are complying with the same plan. As for the Merry Men, they don’t exist. In an attempt to modernize the Robin Hood legend, Marian and her partner Will Scarlet are trying to change the system through political means. It’s not working, but Will believes it can. That’s a mistake because The Hood has a much more effective strategy by stealing and pissing off the sheriff, people love that a lot more than simple chatter, especially when who The Hood is remains a mystery to them.
Eventually, though, The Hood and the people do have to work together to make Nottingham a better place for everyone. And that’s where the film fails its audience. The problem with the film is that it is 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. However what worse is the anti-climax. Despite the literal build up, the film wraps everything abruptly.
A main reason for this being Lionsgate, who ran the Divergent series so far into the ground that it never actually ended, have been especially craving to 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, the film exudes desperation at almost every step.
Nevertheless, there is something oddly charming about the film’s embrace of its tackiness, particularly the way it mashes up the modern and the medieval with no bars hold glee. This is evident in the over-the-top battle sequences, during which British soldiers, decked out in what looks like modern-day body armor and desert camo, battle Arabs who fire jacked-up, shoulder-mounted crossbows that rattle off arrows with the force and frequency of a machine gun. Then there’s the hilariously gaudy masquerade ball, which looks more like an outtake from Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby than anything one would expect to find in a Robin Hood film. And 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 also a ridiculous, friendship-based training montage in the Rocky mold. The comedic undertones in Robin Hood stand out, lending a lighter touch to a serious affair.
Also 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 set pieces recalls any number of post-Snyder action flicks.
Taron Egerton is a likeable lead as the famous hero, as he has the near perfect blend of charm, charisma and humor required for such kind of a role. Seeing him switch between the vigilante Hood and his all too engaging Lord Persona suits him to a tee. While Jamie Foxx shines in his juicy role as John, his sequences with Egerton bring a bit of levity to a film otherwise obsessed with glowering as much as possible. Ben Mendelsohn, who seems to be reviving his character from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, continues to showcase his intensity. Eve Hewson looks absolutely stunning and comes across as a good fit for the role especially with her performance. But for some reason, Jamie Dornan decided to be in this film. Not that his acting is bad, but his character clearly doesn’t have anything to do until the last minute of the film. While Tim Minchin provides the comic relief, F. Murray Abraham and Paul Anderson ham it up spectacularly. On the whole, ‘Robin Hood’ is a disappointing action flick, which despite some occasional fun, never stops fluctuating between absurd and bland.
Directed – Otto Bathurst
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 116 minutes