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In 2010, Ridley Scott made his take on the legend of Robin Hood. Earthy and gritty, one critic said it replaced ‘depth with detail’. Eight years later, we have this adaptation of the classic folk tale, where its filmmakers have done the opposite.
Set in the 12th century, Taron Egerton of Kingsman fame stars as Robin of Loxley, a rich lord in love with his wife, petty thief and activist Marian (Eve Hewson). However, his perfect life is shattered when he is called to fight by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) in England’s war against Arabia. Objecting to his country’s treatment of POWs, he is discharged when he tries unsucessfully to help enemy Yahya aka Little John’s son from being executed.
Together, Robin and John (Jamie Foxx), return to England for revenge – part of which involves stealing from the rich. However, presuming her husband dead, Marian has since shacked up with Will (Jamie Dornan), an aspiring political figure rebelling against the Sheriff of Nottingham’s ballooning war tax.
The best part of Robin Hood 2018 is how unexpectedly modern it is. Writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly lean into the anti-establishment, subversive nature of its source, with the villains of the 12th century piece being the ones of today. The Sheriff of Nottingham is depicted as a Bush-esque or Trumpian figure making misinformation and fear his stock and trade. Plus, half-way through the film, it’s revealed he is in league with even shadowier forces – The Catholic Church. The latter of which are fronted by Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as a cardinal, delivering lines like “Fear! The greatest weapon in God’s arsenal. It’s the reason the church created hell.”
Director Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders) meanwhile goes to great lengths to stage certain sequences, rather ridiculously if entertainingly, to be even more timely. The opening section set during the Third Crusades is made to look the Iraq War, with action beats insanely recalling American Sniper but with steam punk bow and arrow contraptions as opposed to machine guns. Meanwhile, when Marian leads the proletariat into march, it’s shot like an Antifa protest.
For a mainstream blockbuster, it is striking how much the film wears its Communist leanings on its sleeve. This is best exemplified by Will’s arc, a person fighting for the lower classes but is willing to negotiate with the Lords who throw parties described as ‘orgies of excess’. Meanwhile, Robin Hood has no time to talk, too busy knocking over toll bridges. I’ll let you guess who becomes the villain of the piece. Walking into the film, this reviewer had no idea it would make a pretty neat companion piece thematically with American indie comedy Sorry to Bother You.
Outside of all this, does the movie function as the blockbuster and franchise starter it so clearly is trying to be? Yes and no.
On the positive side, the cast is solid. Egerton is charming as Kingsman proved. Foxx is as entertaining as he’s ever been, bringing a similar live-wire energy that he brought to Baby Driver to the unhinged Little John. Their bromance is entertaining to watch, particularly as most of their bonding is shown in montage as part of a lengthy training sequence straight out of an 80s Stallone movie.
Speaking of 80s action flicks, there is Mendelsohn’s Sheriff of Nottingham, a deliciously nasty villain one cannot wait to get his just deserts. Dressed in seemingly the same cloak he wore as the baddie in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, he at one point threatens the Muslim John by telling him he will dose him in pig’s blood before beheading him so he will spend eternity in hell. Still, as horrible as his character is, the Aussie actor imbues the Sheriff with some depth. A monologue he gives about the childhood abuse he faced in boarding school – a trauma which has led him to pursue power so he will never feel weak again – is hypnotic viewing.
However, while the film has some form of socialist or Communist ideology, it is undercut by its 12A rating, designed to squeeze as much money from audiences as possible. The movie is bookended by clunky narration from Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who opens proceedings stating “This isn’t a bedtime story. Forget history, forget what you believe, forget what you know.” This might work if Robin Hood was giving viewers the violent, rebellious film it so clearly wants to. However, for a story exposing the horrors of war and promoting revolution and revenge it is oddly bloodless.
It doesn’t help that certain characters who should die are spared, solely to set them up for future films in the franchise. This is especially worrying given Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur from last year ended with a stinger for a sequel but underperformed, meaning audiences will never see it.
There is so many other things wrong with Robin Hood. We haven’t even got to the bad jokes, Maid Marian’s Urban Outfitters style get-up, dodgy CGI, the fact Little John doesn’t seem traumatised that his son was executed in front of him. However, the blend of what works and what doesn’t is fascinating, leaving this reviewer cautiously curious to see more of Egerton’s hood.