The world could use a funny, romping take on the tales of Robin Hood these days. While the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it seems like a story that regains its relevance every moment. It was only a matter of time before we got another take on Sherwood’s outlaw for the big screen, and given Ridley Scott’s failed attempt in 2010, you’d think that filmmakers would have tried to add some lightheartedness to the proceedings.
They did not.
[Spoilers for 2018’s Robin Hood.]
It seems like it should go without saying, but whenever a film begins with a voiceover instructing you to “forget what you know” about a well-known story, it’s likely a sign that the filmmakers are hoping the audience won’t notice how little they care about the source material. That doesn’t meant that there’s no possible way to create an interesting reimagined take on Robin Hood, but doing that takes actual… imagination. Not the same story we’ve been told over and over with slightly rearranged beats.
This film owes literally everything to its predecessors. Not just other films, but all the television shows as well. (There are even a few incredibly conspicuous plot point swipes from the laughably bad BBC’s Robin Hood series from 2008.) The only twists are the deep-running anachronisms that season the film’s visual signature, from the weaponry Robin sees in the crusades that fire arrows like a machine gun, to the completely un-English architecture of Nottingham, to modern gambling tables, to the blazers and Matrix-y leather jackets half the characters are wearing. If the film was leaning on those anachronisms for the sake of fun, those would be enjoyable stylistic choices, but in a movie that takes itself utterly seriously, those choices get drowned in muddy action sequences and bad CGI.
This film also borrows from other similar characters heavily. There are points in the narrative when Robin Hood is Batman, or the Scarlet Pimpernel, and another point where an important central character literally becomes Two Face in almost the exact way it happens during 2008’s The Dark Knight. The irony of trying to equate Robin Hood with more modern heroes that he himself inspired is often too much to bear. There’s a love triangle too, uniquely aggravating and poorly positioned, running between Robin (played to the temperature of lukewarm oatmeal by Taron Egerton), Marian (a blithely smiling, near-sleepwalking performance from Eve Hewson), and Will Scarlet (effecting Christian Grey-esque levels of detachment and boredom).
The cast and crew could be found in behind-the-scenes videos insisting that this was a more “adult” version of Robin Hood, but the only ways in which this particular story could be deemed adult are irritating and unnecessary; more than one male character threatens Marian with rape just ’cause; Ben Mendelsohn’s Sheriff of Nottingham (he tries so hard to be odious and effecting, but he can’t save himself) tells Robin about how he was beaten in the orphanage where he grew up, and the abuse also has rape-laden overtones to it. We see some warfare in the crusades in which most of the deaths are treated with the same levity you would expect from a shoot-em-up video game. Despite attempts to use arrows in interesting ways, most of the actual battle sequences are tepid and messy.
In another “twist”, this version of Robin Hood decided to take the Moor figure of Robin’s crew (which was a story commonality that was introduced in the Robin of Sherwood series, then leapt to cinema with Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, and has continued onward in most Hood retellings to this day), and mash him up with Little John. Jamie Foxx’s John meets Robin in the Crusades during the start of the film, and deciding that he’s the only honorable Englishman, takes the kid under his wing so they can stop rich men funding the wars that have destroyed their lives. Foxx does his best to give the role his all, but any amount of gravitas he brings to the part gets swallowed by the overall clunkiness of the script and its unwillingness to just make Little John the hero of the story. Instead he’s stuck playing the Alfred to Egerton’s Bruce Wayne, with all lackluster pep talks and sacrifice that entails.
Oh, and he’s called John because it’s so painful to listen to Robin try to pronounce his real name, he just insists that the kid go with the English translation. You know, instead of demanding that the Lord of Loxley wrap his head around non-English sounds. Whatever, I guess.
There are so many little things that go far in ruining the film’s overall effectiveness, even as a goofy popcorn action flick. When Robin is first called away to the crusades, it’s because he’s given a letter from the Sheriff’s office that literally reads “DRAFT NOTICE” in ye olde English font—but again, this is treated as a serious moment, rather than something hilarious. When he returns home, he finds that his manor has been repossessed, but it’s fine for him to live there because no one seems to be using the land. Also, his manor looks like it’s been abandoned for about seventy years, even though he’s only been away for four. (Maybe they set fire to it? No one makes mention of that.) Nottingham straight up looks like Isengard, a great big looming mine-powered city with random spurts of fire blooming out of the ground. Robin’s training montage is out of a completely different film; it’s genuinely funny, featuring Egerton bench-pressing wagon wheels, and dragging chains across the ground to increase his strength while Jamie Foxx sits around chuckling. If the whole film had matched that sequence tonally, we’d have a very different (arguably much better) film.
This film has no character arcs because it has no actual characters; by the end, everyone is almost exactly the same as when they started, with the exception of Little John. Tim Minchin tries his best with Friar Tuck, but the character isn’t given enough to do to be all that relevant to the plot. And we’re also treated to the world’s greatest misuse of F. Murray Abraham as the capital “E” evil cardinal. (There’s maybe a commentary about the church somewhere in this movie, and no one is interested in really exploring that either, so it just dangles.) And the soundtrack by Joseph Trapanese could be copy-pasted onto any current Marvel film and do just fine. Maybe he was trying to audition for them with this score? I’d buy anything at this point.
2018’s Robin Hood believes that it is topical and sharp and funny and full of unstoppable, impressive action. It manages to be none of those things. Someday we’ll get a new Robin Hood film that lives up to the jaunty adventures we adored as children, but we’re currently about as far away from that as we can get. Better luck next time.