Imagine a 2018 Robin Hood done right: a real wealth-redistributing, anti-fascist hero fighting against a rich tyrant who uses political power to only get richer (hmm, who does this remind me of?). That Robin Hood could have been a real hoot, some biting commentary for these times. Instead, we’re left with the vision of Otto Bathurst, who seems to pride himself on giving the legend a modern-day makeover but has actually offered up something unoriginal, tedious and completely unnecessary. This latest retelling arrives only eight years after Ridley Scott’s Russell Crowe–starring version. The actual 2018 Robin Hood remains a haphazard action thriller taking place sometime during the Crusades, with Taron Egerton basically reprising his breakout Kingsman role as a scrappy normie getting recruited and trained for skilled combat. “This is no bedtime story,” the narrator insists early on, in an attempt to incite excitement, but the story immediately becomes a snooze.
What usually makes Robin Hood such fun is that he’s a clever, quick-witted leader, but here he demonstrates more brawn than brain. There’s little to enjoy in making him more a buff mascot than a real working-class hero. At one point, the camera lingers on a shirtless Robin as he nurses a leg wound (for some reason his pants are on but his shirt is not, and I’m no medical expert but that seems rather unnecessary). But the film doesn’t even commit to a “sexy Robin Hood” — which, if that’s what you’re going for, then by all means, go for it — despite the flirty tête-à-tête with Marian (Eve Hewson) in the opening scene. Marian is, as always, supposed to be the love of Robin Hood’s life. But after only that way too brief introduction, with some cheesy, fuzzy-lensed flashbacks picking up the storytelling slack, it becomes a stretch for viewers to believe that Robin is actually hurting when he comes back from a war and discovers that Marian has moved on with someone else.
That’s a failure of pace rather than performance. Robin Hood, more often than not, plays more like a long television episode than a film, with the bronzy glow of gritty prestige drama suffusing the fighting scenes. The filmmakers’ fondness for montages makes some scenes suggest a “Previously on …” episode recap. Unsurprisingly, Bathurst does have a lot of TV directing credits to his name, mostly of the BBC variety (Peaky Blinders, Criminal Justice, Five Days).
In an otherwise unremarkable movie, Little John gets an interesting update in the form of Jamie Foxx, playing him as a Moorish commander set on overthrowing the evil English leadership. Touched by Robin’s attempt at saving his son, John taps his erstwhile Crusader foe, trains him via one of those aforementioned montages and gives him advanced lessons in archery, helping create the masked avenger known by the townspeople as “the Hood.” As this alter ego, Robin does what Robin is best known for: He steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
By day, Robin cozies up to the big, bad villain, the Sheriff of Nottingham (played by Ben Mendelsohn with varying degrees of menace), so he can earn his trust and infiltrate the treasury. By night, he becomes “the Hood.” The double life gives this Robin Hood a superhero arc, which could have been noteworthy if not for the video game–like rendering of fight scenes with slo-mo sequences and POV shots. There is quite a lot of fighting, as can be expected, but it’s too chaotic to be effective. There are some very obvious CGI backdrops and, perhaps to show as little backdrop as possible, also a lot of dizzying close-ups. To paint you a picture: During one battle scene, the camera is cropped right in on John’s face as he fires off arrows. But because the perspective is so tight, we see only the fletching as the arrows are released from his bow, with no sense of where the shots land or what damage he has done.
There is some thrill in seeing a John and a Marian with so much agency — ones who can kick ass and hatch schemes on their own. But then you may start to wonder why the filmmakers weren’t bolder still. This Robin Hood seems a bit too complacent, perhaps even smug, about giving empowering roles to its persons of color and female characters, while still sticking with tradition and casting a white man as the face of the revolution, especially one who comes off more like a puppet than a master. Robin is a unisex name — just saying.
If the hero is bland, we’re at least given an almost fascinating counterpart with Marian’s new beau, Will, who starts off as a noble leader of the people but becomes power-hungry as an aspiring politician and lets his jealousy of Robin Hood take over. He’s the nuanced middle ground between Robin Hood and the sheriff. It’s a shame, then, that this character was given to a performer as dull as Jamie Dornan. What’s also a shame is that if we start to go down the path of his storyline, the movie hints at a sequel, and God forbid we get another one of these movies.