ROBIN HOOD. Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Eve Hewson, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan. Directed by Otto Bathurst. 116 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
The legend of Robin Hood is one of those sources of inspiration that filmmakers just keep returning to for inspiration, and yet so rarely do the finished products give off any indication as to why. Ridley Scott tried to give the tale a ‘Gladiator’-lite feel in 2010, but the result was a grim slog. The 90’s epic starring Kevin Costner was welcomed more readily by audiences, but it’s main selling point was Alan Rickman’s villainous supporting turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Even Disney’s animated take from 1973, reasonably well-received at the time, is regarded in hindsight as the start of the studio’s slide into its “Bronze Age”. It’s perhaps no surprise then that this latest addition to the Hood canon is another disappointment. It tries to be contemporary yet classical, gritty yet stylish, and while there are some moments and elements that work on their own, the messy whole is left stranded in a lacklustre middle ground, failing to properly fulfil any one of its ambitions.
Taron Egerton stars as Robin of Loxley, a British lord conscripted into the Third Crusade by local lawman, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Robin leaves his girlfriend Marion (Eve Hewson) in his family manor and heads off to the Holy Land. We don’t get a lot of backstory, but we do see the couple meet for the first time, when Marion breaks into the Loxley stable to steal a horse for her destitute agriculturalist neighbour. It’s supposed to be a charming meet-cute, but it lacks the requisite spark that might have actually made us care about Robin’s burning need to return to his love. Egerton can play charming (his breakout role Eggsy in the ‘Kingsman’ films definitely had a rough-around-the-edges allure), but opposite Hewson’s slightly more period-appropriate feel, his edgy Robin comes off as detached, even glib. It’s not a great impression for the supposedly altruistic protagonist to give. Besides introducing our lead couple, the screenplay also wants to stress here that although he’s a wealthy lord, Robin is a man of the people. He tells the well-intentioned, charitable Marion that she can take his horse for her neighbour – he’s not a property-coveting stick in the mud like those other lords. Subtle it is not.
Anyway, we cut to a few years later as Robin and a group of fellow Christian soldiers infiltrate a non-specific Middle Eastern village, where they face off against a group of Muslim soldiers – more specifically, Moors. Here, the film comes to life a little, and one can glimpse what director Otto Bathurst is trying to do. This sequence feels, however briefly, like a proper warzone. Facing an enemy combatant ensconced in a tower with a rapid-fire mounted crossbow, Robin’s comrades are mowed down, Bathurst conveying the weapon’s deadly power through flashes of exploding masonry when bolts go astray. Robin is ordered to find a position from which he can neutralise the threat, so off he goes. As Egerton moves through the village’s boxy structures, he leads with his bow when clearing rooms, a notched arrow used just like today’s soldiers would use the barrel of their rifle. It’s suitably intense, layered with dust and grit, and even though editors Joe Hutshing and Chris Barwell have chopped the action to bits, it conveys an urgency and immersion that the film never again matches. There are no daffy archery contests here – only soldiers locked in deadly combat. This scene achieves the modern yet timeless feel that Bathurst was presumably aiming for, grounding the classic story with today’s commitment to a quasi-realism. Moors may not have ever fought with enormous rotary crossbows, but you believe that this is what it might have felt like if they had. After this point though, the style and storytelling fail to mesh properly again.
Robin is eventually sent back to England, where he discovers himself declared dead and his land the property of the State. Marion, as Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) informs him, has moved on, settling down with man of the people and budding politician Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan). Robin realises that the Sheriff of Nottingham – who read out his name on the list of the deceased – is responsible for all his woes and vows to bring down his corrupt rule. His plan doesn’t really come together, though, until he joins forces with Yahya (Jamie Foxx), a skilful but now crippled Moorish soldier who witnessed Robin trying (but failing) to save his son during the Crusade. Having stowed away on Robin’s ship, Yahya, who in a tacky exchange gives his Anglicised name as John, now pledges his mentorship to Robin, helping him attack the root of the conflict that killed his son – the Sheriff’s ruthless war taxes.
What follows is a training montage that we’ve seen a hundred times before, followed by a few daring raids on the Sheriff’s more vulnerable holdings. If star Taron Egerton’s social media presence is anything to go by, the twenty-nine-year-old actor became quite a handy archer in preparation for the role, but the editing (again…) and the storytelling don’t allow him to show off his preparation. The former can be boiled down to excessive cutting, but the latter is more complex. John’s training makes Robin into such a skilful sharpshooter that he never feels as though he’s in any danger. It doesn’t matter how many silver-masked goons the Sheriff dispatches to guard his coffers, Robin rolls through their ranks and out the other side with nary a scratch, leaning more towards the indestructible superheroes that dominate today’s multiplexes than any flesh and blood human. Even Hawkeye, his bow-wielding counterpart in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will sustain an injury every now and then. Supposedly invincible protagonists are nothing new in the action and adventure genre, but it’s hard to invest anything in a journey that we know will end with Robin’s survival, particularly when Bathurst struggles to do anything noteworthy with his lead’s particular set of skills.
Bathurst conveys flashes of the style that he bought to BBC’s hit show ‘Peaky Blinders’, but here it never quite gels with the story that he’s trying to tell. There are some handsomely conceived sets, like the chapel in which the Sheriff confers with his co-conspirator the Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) and the mining town into which Nottingham’s citizens – taxed into poverty – retreat, but their design just seems to reinforce the clashing modern and classical tones at the story’s heart. Even the cast feel confused as to what kind of movie they’re supposed to be in. Jamie Foxx, trying what I can only assume was a North African accent but sounding more like Keith David than anything else, hasn’t quite got the gravitas to carry the grieving father-cum-mentor role, so feels just like the contemporary transplant that he is into this world. Minchin has similar struggles with his London-inspired twang but, more concerningly for the renowned comedian, also struggles to land any of the punchlines that his comic relief role is saddled with. Lastly and perhaps most heartbreakingly for Australian viewers, Ben Mendelsohn disappoints too. A thespian who has made his name Stateside playing baddies in just about every blockbuster or franchise that you could possibly think of, Mendelsohn’s Nottingham is so one-note and unsubtle that it’s tough to derive any enjoyment from the performance. There’s no sly winking, no hamminess – just a dull projection of evil that goes on unrelentingly, ploughing through grim, uninspired dialogue – “Nothing’s sacred ‘til I’ve caught that thief and drowned him in a cage” – and a strangely snappy leather coat with no pleasure in sight. That Mendelsohn is upstaged by his own costume is perhaps the most painful thing about ‘Robin Hood’.
After this film’s disappointing debut in the U.S. last weekend and the hostile reviews that it garnered, many have seen fit to compare it to Guy Ritchie’s failed franchise starter ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”. Counting myself among the few supporters of Ritchie’s take on the medieval legend, I resent the comparison. Where ‘Legend of the Sword’ had a clearly revisionist and consistently inventive take on its story, I found this film’s interpretation of its source haphazard and unconvincing, too nervous to fully embrace its own version of the Hood legend. This Robin doesn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor, he robs from audiences instead.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 22.