Robin Hood is one of those characters on which it is easy to imagine almost any Hollywood creative having a take. The element of redistributing wealth to the poor lends itself to political commentary; the fact that he is a thief would match the character well to a heist format; his ability to strike from the shadows, then disappear a staple of a number of modern superheroes. The character endures because the interpretation is malleable.
With that in mind, it is no surprise that Robin Hood, from director Otto Bathurst, making his feature film debut, but possibly best known for TV show Peaky Blinders, bears little resemblance to the most recent big screen incarnation, the 2010 version starring Russell Crowe. This is not entirely a bad thing.
In the latest version of the legend, Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton takes the role of Robin of Loxley, a nobleman conscripted into the Third Crusade, only to return from war to find the poor punitively taxed to fund the ongoing battle, and his love – Eve Hewson’s Marion – in the arms of another. He responds by teaming with John (Jamie Foxx) to fight the injustices visited on the community, as The Hood. In so many ways, this feels like a film from 15 years ago. The overlong war sequences seem to be drawing visual inspiration from 2001’s Black Hawk Down, which, in turn was the apex of Hollywood’s short-lived obsession with desaturation; which seemed to start with Saving Private Ryan in 1998. The endless dropping into slow motion during action sequences – which are, uniformly, awful – evoking the Resident Evil series of films (also beginning in 2001). Green-screen work is appalling and, in places – particularly a carriage-based night time action scene late on – make this film look like 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Most obviously, the characterising of Robin as a bit of a Jack the Lad (despite a noble background) makes the film feel like something Guy Ritchie would have come up with. All of this serves to make the film feel ripped from its time.
The film has some glaring technical problems too: everything looks like a film set. This is most striking during the battlefield scenes early in the film, where it simply looks like a soundstage. Most establishing shots are ruined by poor matting. On a costume and make-up level, the decisions made here are just inexplicable. Characters are dressed – most of the time – in what is clearly 21st century clothing and, in fact, is most reminiscent of some of the less outlandish costumes employed in the Hunger Games series. Make-up is over used, with close-ups of Ben Mendelsohn frequently exposing the heavy layers of foundation on his face; and the score from Joseph Trapanese is a Hans Zimmer-wannabe that seems to be trying to evoke The Dark Knight.
It is in that Batman-esque striking from the shadows, however, that the film does find some success and, to be very clear, the rich playboy hiding his serious intentions to help his city is very Bruce Wayne. How Foxx’s John came to follow him to England, whilst developing an almost supernatural level of belief in Robin, makes little sense; but these are the few parts of the film to evoke any joy; as Robin finds new skill levels and sense of purpose. This is attempting, at least, to find the sense of fun absent in the Crowe version. The growing understanding of a community that there is… something there protecting them is communicated very effectively. It is all undermined, by what appears to be a lack of budget. Robin could be protecting a street full of people, rather than a city, for all we know; as there is simply no scale or size to anything. The film was made for south of $100 million, and the end result shows that this can no longer be considered big budget filmmaking in the action genre.
On a performance level, the biggest disappointment is Ben Mendelsohn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, not for any great deficit in his work; more that this is a very special actor coasting by in endless repeats of, effectively, the same role. If you have seen his performances in Rogue One and Ready Player One, you’ve seen this. This is man who has proven many times he is capable of so much more (see the Netflix original series Bloodline for details); and the Sheriff is barely even a one-note character in this. There is also some confusion in the film as to the scale of his character’s remit; as he seems to be funding the Crusades by himself, and to be appointed by the Catholic Church (a surprising appearance as a Cardinal from F. Murray Abraham).
Egerton and Foxx are both fine. It is tempting to call the former miscast, but that would be to presuppose there is a definitive take on the character which, clearly, there is not. Robin Hood as a cheeky chappy? Okay. Hewson as Marion is terrific, if a little underused. The most pleasant surprise is Tim Minchin as Friar Tuck, both for a completely revised take on the role; but also for avoiding the pitfalls of a version that could have led to some extremely clunky and overplayed comedy. He plays the role on the small side, and it is all the better for that.
READ MORE: Robin Hood: The Rebellion – Film Review
As with the 2010 film, it takes until the final scenes for Robin to become fully the Robin Hood we know (with his Merry Men assembling, living in Sherwood Forest, etc). As such, we never fully feel like we are watching a Robin Hood film. Unlike the Ridley Scott version, here everyone is a little too clean, a little too well groomed, and we see very little of the colour green at all – a small point, but another factor that distances the audience from this feeling like Robin Hood. What we are left with is intermittently charming and, mostly, well-acted; but it is also poorly staged, under-funded, and missing the sense of fun for which it is so clearly aiming.