For better and worse (more often worse), franchises are the driving force in studio filmmaking today. If a film is likely to have sequels, spinoffs, and merchandising tie-ins it’s more of a factor for a project getting a green light than anything resembling originality. This mindset has led to some odd misfires from the big studios, including the recent attempt at a brand new King Arthur franchise. The latest poorly thought out misfire as a would-be franchise starter is Robin Hood, director Otto Bathurst’s take on the iconic thief that has endured for centuries. This new take on Robin Hood fails to bring anything new or of interest to the table as it aims to be a sleeker, modern approach to the classic tale complete with a little teaser for a sequel that’ll most likely never get made. Incoherent action and muddled politics ensure that nobody will want to see the next adventure of this Robin Hood.
One problem facing any new version of Robin Hood is the fact that most people are familiar with the story in one form or another. The 2018 Robin Hood opens with a narration from Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) which tries to sell the audience that this is not the story you’re familiar with, but for the most part it is. After the narration, we see the first meeting between Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton), a young, wealthy lord, and his beloved Marian (Eve Hewson), as she attempts to steal a horse from his stable. This sets off a whirlwind romance that unfolds in a brief little montage that concludes with the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) drafting Robin to fight in the Crusades.
Four years later and Robin is battling in the Middle East alongside his commander Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Anderson). But Guy starts slaughtering those captured and he’s got his eyes set on slaughtering the son of the Moor who will become to be known as Little John (Jamie Foxx). Robin’s attempt to stop this bloodshed results in an arrow wound, an injury that will be his ticket home, with Little John stowing himself away in the bowels of the ship. Upon returning to Nottingham, Robin is greeted to a town in turmoil. His home was seized by the Sheriff. Marian has found herself in love with Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) after reports of Robin’s death on the battlefield. Inequity is out of hand. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The only way to right all these wrongs is through a guerrilla warfare-styled redistribution of wealth, a covert operation where Robin will play an aristocrat by day and at night pillage the various places where the Sheriff of Nottingham’s numerous taxes go.
On paper, a new Robin Hood would seem like a frivolous idea that there’s little demand for. In execution, this new Robin Hood establishes that it’s a frivolous idea that there’s no demand for. As I sat in the theater watching this lifeless would-be franchise starter there was only one question swirling around my mind: Who is this for? It’s hard to imagine that audiences old or young want a gritty origin story for Robin Hood and yet that’s what the film delivers without wit or imagination. What’s worse, the action on display by director Otto Bathurst is absolutely dreadful and often incomprehensible. Even the chaotic construction of the action set pieces would be forgivable if the film were capable of creating even the slightest bit of tension but it’s just not there.
One thing that sticks out about this new Robin Hood is its failed attempts to employ modern politics in its age-old tale. It’s obvious that the Crusades are meant to mirror the quagmire of our decades-long entanglements in the Middle East, but a late story revelation undermines this, the most effective of Robin Hood’s political elements. In Nottingham, Robin Hood’s exploits make him a folk hero and a menace to the establishment. The resistance to the Sheriff’s regime comes from Robin Hood and Will Scarlet, and the two disagree over tactics. Will wishes for a more peaceful solution driven by appeals to the people. It’d be a valid point if the film’s villains weren’t unelected and unaccountable. Even odder, the appeal of Robin Hood has always been redistribution of wealth, and yet the film really doesn’t show the fruits of that labor. Instead Robin is able to use the stolen money to buy favor with the Sheriff, so he’s just redistributing back to its source. The climax and its resolution are all resolved through violence. Perhaps the studio was trying to avoid complaints of Marxist propaganda from conservative groups by making the redistribution of wealth a kind of secondary trait for Robin Hood. Either way, it’s frustrating because it seems like Robin Hood has something on the tip of its tongue but can’t quite make out a coherent sentence.
The cast of Robin Hood tries their best with the lackluster material provided them. As shown in the Kingsman films, Taron Egerton is a charismatic actor but little of his charisma makes into the finished film here. Jamie Foxx gives one of the most uneven performances of his career, hindered by an accent that wavers in and out at time. Eve Hewson and Jamie Dornan seem like they’ve convinced themselves they’re in a completely different, more respectable movie. The only actors that seem to sense just what kind of movie they were in were Ben Mendelsohn chewing scenery as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Tim Minchin’s cheeky version of Friar Tuck, and a particularly hammy appearance by F. Murray Abraham as an evil Cardinal of the church.
Robin Hood lives down to expectations. It’s a movie that attempts to pull a franchise out of public domain. From every conceivable aspect it’s entirely toothless. The action is flat. The dialogue is dreary. This is a movie that is wanting to score political points without making a single point. Robin Hood doesn’t even have enough a distinct personality to be a gloriously bad misfire. This is a movie destined to be a footnote on the Wikipedia page of a legendary character.
An unnecessary and toothless reimagining of a classic tale, Robin Hood is a flat would-be franchise starter featuring a character with perfect aim in a movie incapable of hitting a single target.