Robin Hood remains pretty much the best piece of intellectual property for feature films. It’s a populist story of good versus evil. It’s tried and tested through centuries of stories, songs, plays, books, cinema, television and animation. Countless artists have brought in new characters, abandoned old ones, and reworked and remixed every element of tone, plot, aesthetic and theme.
The latest iteration comes from franchise-seeking studio Lionsgate, along with popular television director Otto Bathurst (Black Mirror, Peaky Blinders) – here making his feature film debut. Bathurst has spearheaded a new take that is fast-paced, youthful, and inspired in part by the superhero genre: essentially “Robin-Hood-as-Batman”. While that may be the apparent intention, in practice it is a troublesome mess.
Young aristocrat Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton) is drafted to fight in the Third Crusade in Arabia. Returning four years later, he discovers he has been declared dead, his estate has been dissolved, and his lover Marian (Eve Hewson) has started a relationship with another man. With the Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) that destroyed his estate now crushing Nottingham under ruinous war taxes, Robin and the moor nicknamed John (Jamie Foxx) conspire to bring the Sheriff’s illicit plans to their knees.
Tonally, there is enough of Robin Hood that resembles Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword that one imagines Lionsgate executives blanching at the latter film’s commercial failure. Facing their own potential box office disaster, it seems likely they ordered the standard response: cut down anything in the film that is not an action sequence and hope to claw back as much cash as possible from the action flick demographic before word of mouth kills the film dead. At least I assume that was the approach; there is a lot of action in Robin Hood, and some of it is quite effective. Edited all together, however, and it is too frantic and inconsistently assembled to ever properly enjoy. Whole sections of the plot appear to be skipped or hand-waved away, to a point where the story does not entirely make sense. You would be forgiven for wondering if entire reels of the film had been cut out.
The inconsistent film that appears on screen does not do its cast many favours. Taron Egerton comes across as an uneven and awkwardly presented London ‘geezer’, further cementing the film’s Guy Ritchie-esque tone. Jamie Foxx is on steadier ground as John, but it is odd to see his character in the film given it so obviously apes Morgan Freeman’s Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, which itself plagiarized the moor Nasir in the 1984 British TV series Robin of Sherwood). Comedian Tim Minchin, who has been extending his repertoire into acting in recent years, is a little over-the-top and overtly comedic as Friar Tuck. Eve Hewson is curiously uncharismatic as Marian, and she and Egerton struggle to mark any romantic sparks between the characters work. Really though: these are ultimately scripting problems through-and-through.
Much attention will be placed on Ben Mendelsohn’s hammy performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Everybody loves a villain, and he is making a lucrative career out of them in films including Rogue One and Ready Player One. He is at his least interesting here, providing plenty of energy but little subtlety. He is watchable, and sometimes quite entertaining, but it’s the performance of an actor that could do much better.
I would be interested in seeing if there is a longer, more plot-heavy edit of Robin Hood. What is presented on screen mostly feels like a missed opportunity. In the film’s defence it has a bold sense of design, not to mention a fresh story angle. It simply needs room to breathe: to expand the narrative, to flesh out the character interactions, and simply more for the audience than archery and explosions. Lionsgate may crave a franchise (both Twilight and The Hunger Ones seem well done) but they are not finding one here.