“Forget what you’ve seen before; forget what you think you know,” the opening monologue of the latest adaptation of Robin Hood begins. It’s supposed to be a clever bid from the filmmakers to build a new origin story for the goodhearted thief, but instead the instructions feel like more of a desperate plea that you’ll forget anything that ever made you enjoy a Robin Hood movie — because none of that is to be found here.
The new film takes up the historical origins of the legend of Robin of Locksley, setting the story in the town of Nottingham, an apparently independent principality within the kingdom of England. Its dealings with the church, the war, and the treasury all occur far outside the auspices of any king, who is only mentioned once.
The Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn in a toothless retread of previously more effective renderings of villainy) recruits Lord Robin (Taron Egerton) to serve in the Crusades, seizing his manor and money while Robin fights his way back to lady love Marian (Eve Hewson). When Robin returns from the war to find his people oppressed, he joins forces with an escaped war prisoner, Little John (Jamie Foxx), to steal from the rich to give to the poor — and expose a conspiracy within the Nottingham government. Because philanthropic thievery was apparently not sufficient fodder for storytelling.
Gone are Sherwood Forest and Robin’s beloved merry men, replaced by the fire and brimstone of Nottingham mines and the crushing power of the church. Taking Robin Hood’s core values, the film tries hard to make the story a metaphor for government corruption and a redistribution of wealth, but it can’t decide whether it’s making an argument for or against socialism. By way of Little John, who is written here as a Moor, the film also attempts to draw Robin Hood’s ties to the Crusades into a conversation about wars of religion and the deep-seated rot of the Catholic Church. On all fronts, it strives to twist the Robin Hood story into something more provocative, but ultimately it’s a garbled, hollow mess of attempts at relevancy.
So much of what has made Robin Hood a beloved figure in cinema has to do with his sense of playfulness, with lighthearted jokes and wry humor shining through, especially in action scenes. That’s true of the 1938 Errol Flynn rendition and the classic Disney cartoon, but here there are only halfhearted attempts at humor, with Robin (just Rob in this version) throwing off contrived one-liners in the midst of fighting.
One of the more interesting reasons to make a Robin Hood film in this day and age would be to expand the role of Marian to more than a blushing damsel in distress. This movie attempts that by making Marian the first person to introduce Rob to his charitable form of thievery, but she’s still a woman whose entire existence in predicated on her meaning to men — first Rob, then Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan). The love triangle lacks any real sense of stakes or indecision, resulting in a love story that never ignites.
In action sequences, director Otto Bathurst picks up a shooting style perfected by Guy Ritchie: the artfully calibrated mix of slow motion and hyper-speed in a balletic rush of violence. Ritchie has used the technique to comedic and adventurous effect in the Sherlock Holmes films, but at this point, the trick feels stale. Bathurst’s approach is derivative, and lacks the narrative purpose that has made the aesthetic shine in other contexts.
The film has two bright spots: Dornan and Tim Minchin. The latter is a delight as Friar Tuck, a bumbling man of the church whose apparent absentmindedness masks his attempts to do good within a corrupt system. Minchin gets the only truly funny moments in the film, most notably when practicing how he might deliver bad news to the sheriff. While much of Rob and Little John’s heroism feels unearned, by the time Tuck gets down and dirty in the fight, you can’t help but root for his earnest, charmingly befuddled approach to win the day.
In contrast, Dornan is the most complex and compelling figure in the film as Will Scarlet, a man of the people who has fought his way to a position of political power through social justice. Dornan’s Scarlet is a live wire of righteous anger ready to spark, and his fate offers up the only moment in the film that lands its intended message. His storyline sets up a potential sequel, and it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what this film could have been.
The story of Robin Hood is one that has provided fuel for film adaptations from the swashbuckling (The Adventures of Robin Hood) to the satirical (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), but 2018’s Robin Hood aims its arrow at contemporary action and relevancy only to miss the mark entirely. C