Sometimes, you go into a movie with complete awareness that it’s probably going to suck. Often, your expectations are subverted, which can offer some of the more rewarding cinematic experiences available, but usually you’re just left disappointed. The sad truth is that as much as you can prepare yourself for this inevitability of mediocrity, you’re still left stung by the film itself. You see the missed potential, the repeated displays of ineptitude and the unavoidable sensation that this could all have been avoided. But I’m not sure that’s the case for Robin Hood. We all knew it was going to suck.
The cinematic debut of Otto Bathurst, a TV director who has worked on Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror, this overblown snore represents yet another attempt by Hollywood to try and turn the Robin Hood stories into a multi-film franchise. Of course, they keep trying. It’s a public domain story everyone has at least a passing familiarity with and are aware of its iconography — the bows and arrows, the colourful characters, the evil sheriff, the stealing from the rich to give to the poor. In Hollywood’s golden age, Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks became icons by donning the tights, and Kevin Costner’s oft-maligned Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves remains a fun romp. Ridley Scott tried to make it edgy and historically grounded but nobody cared. Now, with Leonardo DiCaprio producing (?) and Taron Egerton in the title role, the objective seems to have been ‘make the non-union equivalent of a Guy Ritchie movie’, complete with stylized action scenes and the grimy coolness of the modern London working class. But that translation of a classic tale via Ritchie’s gaze didn’t work too well with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. However, in comparison to Robin Hood, that film looks like a vivacious masterpiece.
Robin Hood is too dull to be truly worth hating, but it remains a baffling watch. Here, Robin of Loxley is a former soldier of the Crusades who returns home to Nottingham to discover his home has been raided and his town bled of its wealth by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). But Robin’s bigger priority seems to be that his love Marian (Eve Hewson) has left him for the wannabe politician Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan somehow duller than ever). Motivated by a former Arab soldier he sort of tried to save (Jamie Foxx), the pair plan a little wealth redistribution. So far, so Robin Hood, right? It’s a bit of Costner, a bit of Ridley, a lot of Ritchie, but this melting pot has no true vessel to sustain it. It has no ideas of its own beyond ‘Well, it worked for that movie so why not us?’ Half the time, the action scenes are shot so incoherently you can’t even see what’s going on (which is a depressing default mode for so much of modern action cinema). The whole movie reeks of an exasperated sigh of ‘why not’ from a studio executive who just wanted to go home for the day.
It’s also not especially interested in being a movie about Robin Hood. Jamie Foxx’s Yahya (which is quickly shortened to John) is the motivational force behind everything while Robin (shortened to Rob because he’s cool like that) goes along with it because he likes shooting arrows and he thinks Marian deserves better than Christian Grey in David Cameron mode (and that premise of a wannabe populist ‘voice of the people’ opposing a radical outsider force inciting rebellion should have been at least more interesting than Dornan’s blank stare of apathy). Nothing in the film can just be part of the Robin Hood story: It has to be darker or ‘subversive’ or utterly miserable. The only thing that feels worthwhile is Mendelsohn’s hamminess and even then that’s an obvious reaction to the iconic Alan Rickman.
The film-makers have made a point of talking about how they had no interest in historical accuracy while making Robin Hood, which is most evident in the delightfully anachronistic costumes that are more couture than Medieval. Yet the film does nothing else to push that reality bending boundary. More than a Guy Ritchie movie, it wants to be A Knight’s Tale, but that film is fun and not afraid to mock itself. Robin Hood is smothered by its own self-seriousness. It even opens with a voice-over telling audiences to ‘forget history’, as if what follows is a transgressive historical re-imagining. Bless.
Egerton is here presumably because he’s young and the film-makers want to go for that millennial edge, but as hard as he tries, he can’t lift this character into any realm of charisma or intrigue. Foxx gets more to do - if it’s soon revealed that the project was originally intended as a Foxx star vehicle, I would buy it - but it’s hard to get over the subservient black guy dynamic (also this film may claim it’s not interested in history but it’s super determined to recreate the brutality of the crusades on the locals). Eve Hewson gets a breath of Strong Independent Woman but every costume is there to remind you she is a prize to be fought over by Egerton and Dornan.
We could be here all day talking about the elephant in the room that arrives whenever a capitalist driven product tries to appropriate socialist ideals for profit, but it’s especially bad in Robin Hood because the film is so damn determined to draw real-life parallels with today’s politics. Mendelsohn has clearly been told to act like Trump or a Fox News anchor, Dornan is certainly bland enough for his Irish Mitt Romney impression, trying to be the centrist dad of Nottingham, and Egerton is a step away from revealing an Antifa flag on his hood. Never mind the questionable arc of having Robin be a privileged lord who must be the one to inspire the trodden down masses to revolt.
I almost wish Robin Hood was more of a trainwreck because at least there would be something interesting to dissect amidst the wreckage. With The Mummy, we had that benefit, but this is too crushingly dull to merit more than a baffled shrug. Nobody wanted to make this movie, audiences don’t seem all that interested in paying for it, and whatever plans for an epic franchise may have been discussed prior to its release can safely be put to bed. If only I could get back the time Robin Hood stole from me.