The newest adaptation of Robin Hood, the tale of the archer who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, angles to be an origin story worthy of action figures. It makes sense on paper–a charismatic hero creates a popular uprising while sniping a bunch of dudes in the throat with arrows. Why couldn’t Robin Hood be a superhero? The inclusion of tights could be optional, but wouldn’t be wholly out of step with movie’s adopted genre.
In execution, though, Robin Hood is a middling but forgettable blockbuster, hoping to mix together Batman, John Wick, Kingsman, and any number of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but without enough charm or fun to stand next to any of them.
A voice-over monologue at the start of Robin Hood advises us that the movie won’t bother with history or accuracy–we wouldn’t care anyway, we’re told–and drops us into a medieval Britain whose people mostly wear slick leather jackets and whose landscape has an inordinate number of things spouting flames into the air. This is a “cool” take on a story that’s been told time and again in cinema.
Robin Hood’s cast fights valiantly for the premise. Taron Egerton, in the titular role and doing the most running, jumping, and bowstring-drawing, brings his everyman charm from the Kingsman franchise; Jamie Foxx works very hard as the intimidating, ass-kicking mentor and shows off action chops of his own; and Ben Mendelsohn deploys some signature oozing sleaze as the Sheriff of Nottingham, nearly reaching the same level as his sneering Imperial middle-manager in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or Ready Player One’s Nolan Sorrento. But ultimately, the movie just isn’t charming enough to raise the character of Robin Hood from folk hero to superhero.
Though Robin Hood is retelling a familiar story, it takes a few liberties in the name of modernization. After moving in with his girlfriend Marian (Eve Hewson), Egerton’s amiable Lord Robin of Loxley is drafted into the English army and sent to fight in the Crusades, where he’s stuck for four years. What follows is a lengthy combat scene that could have been lifted from any movie about current conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, as Robin and his squad of English archers clear nondescript desert towns door by door, bows drawn as if they’re carrying assault rifles. The action sequence sets a tone for the film. As soon as the defending forces start using a giant gatling-crossbow, the sequence becomes something like an Iraq War-set Saving Private Robin.
It’s here that Robin meets John (Foxx), a Moorish fighter who nearly kills him. Robin’s ruthless English buds save his life, and then Robin saves John’s as the English threaten to torture and murder unarmed prisoners. Through fast-forwarded plot contrivance, both wind up back in England, where Robin discovers he’s lost everything, including his fiance. John recruits him to strike back at the English war machine by becoming England’s take on DC’s Arrow.
Robin has the added benefit of being a rich dude, so the movie adds his Bruce Wayne side to the proceedings. It’s a nice shift to add a little more of Robin’s political maneuvering to the story, but the whole story has a Clark Kent-is-obviously-Superman feel. Nobody manages to put together that the barely disguised desperado known as the Hood arrived in town right when Robin did, and we get a few confusing scenes where the Sheriff seems to be hinting he knows more than he’s letting on, but actually doesn’t. In general, everyone in Nottingham must be kinda dumb.
From there out, Robin Hood is less about robberies and more about Egerton busting into places and shooting arrows really fast at soldiers in a series of big action set pieces. The safest comparison is John Wick’s close-up, fast action pointing and shooting, and it’s in these action sequences that Robin Hood is at its most fun. Egerton deftly handles both the physicality of action sequences and that loveable action hero air of always staying just an inch from being in over his head. There’s only one sequence, a carriage chase through Nottingham’s constantly aflame mining district, where special effects break down and the use of green screen gets especially egregious. We maybe didn’t need so many clearly post-production fire effects.
While the action is generally pretty serviceable, it’s the script and the characters that ultimately let the movie down. Robin himself is just not engaging enough to make him memorable. The character can’t capture the relatability of a John McClane, the effortless cool of an Indiana Jones or James Bond, or the quippy one-liners of a Spider-Man or Tony Stark. Add that to the fact that Robin is largely dragged through the story by John, the guy who has most of the motivation and the intellect to enact his agenda, and it starts to feel like we’re following the wrong guy.
Meanwhile, Mendelsohn does his best to ratchet up the bile and get you to hate him, but the sheriff never manages much more than complaining, screaming threats, and getting easily outwitted. The rest of the supporting cast–Hewson, Jamie Dornan as her semi-shady commoner politician boyfriend, and Tim Minchin as Friar Tuck (one of the only two people who seem to know Robin in the entire town)–are stuck pushing the plot between action scenes with little to work with.
The most interesting part of Robin Hood is also its most easily buried. The subject matter of Robin’s legend is always that of the underclass taking back power from their rich oppressors, and the movie tries to pull in a few modern issues to make a more contemporary point. The English’s approach to the Crusades is obviously meant to evoke “enhanced interrogation” in the Middle East today. Later, commoners in Nottingham are met by soldiers carrying iron riot shields. With bandanas over their mouths and firebombs in their hands, the good guys resemble nothing so much as photographer Robert Cohen’s famous photo of protester Edward Crawford in Ferguson, Missouri, heaving a tear gas canister toward police.
The movie’s viewpoint isn’t subtle, but those scant few images also mark Robin Hood at its most risky and intelligent. It’s unfortunate that director Otto Bathurst is too busy breathlessly running to the next action scene to spend much time ruminating about how Robin Hood might inform modern life. A few quick images and the neurons they activate in your brain will have to suffice.
Robin Hood bookends its story by completing the voice-over monologue from the beginning of the film, remarking that the story is far from over. The whole thing ends with the very first appearance of the legendary Sherwood Forest, so clearly there’s more rich-robbing to be done, but it seems unlikely there’s enough in this blockbuster to warrant stretching Robin Hood’s story into more movies. It’s a fun enough way to spend an afternoon, but as much as Robin Hood might want a piece of the superhero action, it can’t quite manage the fun, fascinating characters that would make it more than another note in the history of the familiar tale’s film adaptations.