Robin Hood begins with the narration of its protagonist, played by Taron Egerton (the Kingsman films), warning us all to “forget history” and everything we know about the swashbuckling outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. “This is not a bedtime story!” he says, a frankly rude erasure of a certain beloved singing fox, whose popularity is one of the only reasons this character still inspires dozens of different boneheaded reinterpretations each decade.
Arriving with all the style and nuance of an early 2000s Mountain Dew commercial directed by a film grad that just watched The Matrix for the first time, the new Robin Hood doesn’t put a new spin on the same old story as much as it once again raises the evergreen, timeless question: Just...why? And, Who, exactly, is this for? (No offense to slow-motion bow-and-arrow-tracking-shot enthusiasts.)
There are, I am not exaggerating, roughly 100 previous film and TV adaptations of the Robin Hood mythology listed on Wikipedia. Three more are in the pipeline. Friar Tuck is shook!
Perhaps, then, Otto Bathurst’s often-baffling take—being sold as a Robin Hood origin story—aligns with one of the major talking points of the year in cinema: every generation gets its A Star Is Born, and every generation gets four-to-seven terrible Robin Hood movies.
It would be one thing if there was anything particularly interesting that this film was trying to say about the times we live in, any filmmaking decision not entirely derivative of dozens of action movies before it that weren’t even that good to begin with. There’s one big swing at cultural relevance near the end of the film—and, judging by the embarrassed laughter in response, a huge whiff—when Egerton’s Robin tries to pump up a peasant army he’s recruited for an uprising by bellowing, “I’m guessing you’d all be up for a little redistribution of wealth!”
But, oh Robin, haven’t you heard? Americans don’t like taking money from the rich and giving it to the hardworking poor. Just ask the white women who voted for Trump.
Robin Hood (2018)—not to be confused with Robin Hood (2010), Robin Hood (1973), Robin Hood (2006) (TV Series), Robin Hood (1991), Robin Hood (1982) (TV Movie), or Robin Hood (1922) when you search for it on IMDb—is a war movie, then a superhero movie, then a heist movie, then a love story, and then, in the last few scenes you realize, “Oh, I see...it’s an origin story.” Then there’s the most cumbersome sequel set-up we’ve seen in a long time.
There is, ostensibly, some gesture made toward a coherent theme, in which Robin examines whether our identity, morality, and destiny is tied to the life we’re born into. How unfortunate, then, for the film to have such a crisis of identity—made all the more confusing considering it is one of the world’s most popular characters whose story it’s telling.
As he narrates about how he could “bore us with the history, but you wouldn’t listen”—always a solid move to insult the audience from the very first line—we meet Egerton’s Lord Robin of Loxley.
He’s a bit of a playboy, living in a manor, dripping in fancy duds, and swaggering his way down to the barns to hit on young, hot Marian (Eve Hewson), who is helpless to his charms. A montage in which the two basically seem to be non-stop fornicating is abruptly interrupted when the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn, in peak Ben Mendelsohn mode) drafts him into the army to fight the Moors.
While away shooting these dizzying, totally unnecessary battle scenes, he witnesses how corrupt and inhumane the people in power are. (The xenophobic, terrorist-fetish styling of the Moor army shall go unmentioned.) After having a hand in saving a prisoner of war played by Jamie Foxx, renamed “John” once his birth name proves too hard to pronounce (eye-roll), the two team up to seek revenge against the Sheriff on behalf of the people, who he is taxing unfairly to support a war they don’t believe in.
A Rocky-like montage follows in which John teaches Robin how to rob like a proper 2018 action-movie badass. He gets a makeover, including the key wardrobe piece that eventually earns him his “The Hood” nickname. (The "sexy, but baroque" costuming is a real look. All the men are dressed like the guy from Silverlake you'll probably sleep with when the bars close. The women are costumed as if they are attending the 1999 Indie Spirit Awards.)
They rob. They seek justice. There are about 17 never-ending action set pieces. Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan pops up here and there as one of the most confusingly-written characters of the year in cinema.
It’s a lot! It’s also nothing at all.
That a pointless action film arrives on a holiday weekend with all the bloat and unpleasantness of, well, Russell Crowe in the last Robin Hood movie is hardly noteworthy. It’s Hollywood! A depressing onslaught of big-budget disasters? That’s the biz, baby!
What’s confusing is why, despite a decades-long history of not a single one of these movies getting good reviews, this is the tale that keeps getting rebooted time and time again. Outside of Errol Flynn’s and the cherished Disney animated musical, the only legitimately good Robin Hood movie is the one that literally makes fun of Robin Hood movies: Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
My apologies if there is some foreign-language-indie-short-film version of Robin Hood that you know and love, but let’s at least survey the high-profile adaptations over the years. Skipping 2012’s one-two punch of Tom and Jerry and VeggieTales takes, that means revisiting Ridley Scott’s 2010 production, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. It was ruled “simultaneously simplistic and over-plotted, revisionist and predictable;” labeled “crowded” and “lumbering;” and, in terms of Crowe and Blanchett in the leads: “I can’t remember a more un-fun-looking couple.”
Or, as Rene Rodriguez wrote for the Miami Herald, “the film achieves something you never would have thought possible: it makes you nostalgic for Kevin Costner and Bryan Adams.”
About that one.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or “entertainment without a particular point of view,” as Gene Siskel called it, was memorable for capitalizing on Kevin Costner’s rising star in the most blatant, laziest way possible—here, grow a mullet and hold a sling-bow—and terrorizing all future generations with the treacly Bryan Adams ballad, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” It made an assload of money, making it an important player in the time-honored tradition of fostering massive resentment from a general public hoodwinked into spending their money to screen joyless nonsense with a familiar name attached.
The ‘90s loved itself some Robin Hood. The same year as Costner’s dirge-in-tights premiered, Uma Thurman starred in a British production and Hanna-Barbera released an animated series. There was Men in Tights, of course, as well as a made-for-TV kids movie called Robin of Locksley starring Devon Sawa, Joshua Jackson and Sarah Chalke. (OK, 10/10 would watch that right now.)
In more recent years, there’s been a BBC One television series, and TV-movie spinoff that aired on ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney in 2001 starring Keira Knightley as Robin’s daughter called Princess of Thieves. I learned while researching this piece that there was a 1976 romance version starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn called Robin and Marian, which...I’m intrigued!
But scan the, again, literally 100-plus adaptations over the years, and you’ll see a series of critical disasters, box-office underperformers, and otherwise blips on the radar that made no impression, dotted by the singular highlights of Errol Flynn’s go at it back in 1938, the 1973 Disney version, and then the Mel Brooks satire in 1993.
At no point in those dozens and dozens of entries over 80 years does there seem to be any evidence that the general public is at all interested in a dark, self-serious, blockbuster action-thriller iteration of this story.
Give this new Robin Hood credit where it’s (barely) due: it tackles the icon with more mischief and humor than those maligned Costner and Crowe versions, especially, mustered. But with more ideas than any sense of what it wants to do or say with its titular character, that ends up being small praise for a production that more resembles a kindergartner circuitously babbling the plot of a movie he saw at school than an actual film.
Is the issue that so many of us are ruined by our indoctrination into this folklore through the beady eyes of a dashing cartoon fox and his band of anthropomorphic thieves, all of whom have never been merrier, before or since? It’s an argument to be made, but we don’t think it’s the case.
Looking at this week’s Robin Hood entry and the blockbusters that have come before it, one can’t escape the irony of this hero who robs the rich to give to the poor—the crass pillaging of wallets to pay for something no one wants or needs in service of the only entity more corrupt and vile than Nottingham itself: Hollywood.