Directed by Otto Bathurst
Written by Ben Chandler & David James Kelly
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx and Ben Mendelsohn
Running time 1 hr 56 minutes
MPAA rating PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references.
by Hunter Bush
Robin Hood is fun, in a big, silly, action movie way. Much more fun than I was expecting, honestly, but it wears its influences on its sleeve so earnestly that it got a little exasperating. As it is the Thanksgiving season (and I've been watching probably entirely too much Great British Baking Show), I'll use a cooking metaphor: Otto Bathurst's Robin Hood isn't a new recipe, but it adds new spices: war movies, Christopher Nolan Batman films & political protest imagery. I guess, then, my biggest problem is that certain bites felt over-seasoned.
I'm not going to recap the broad strokes of Robin Hood because we all know it. Either you've seen Disney's 1973 animated version starring Brian Bedford as the voice of anthropomorphic fox Robin, 1991's Prince of Thieves featuring Kevin Costner (and his inconsistent accent) as Robin or Mel Brooks' hilarious '93 parody Men In Tights starring Cary Elwes. Maybe you've seen some of the "classics" like 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood (arguably the most famous), starring Errol Flynn or maybe you grew up in a Sinatra-loving household and are familiar with 1964's Robin and the 7 Hoods, a 30's Chicago gangster take on the myth which stars Frank as "Robbo". Point is, you know the characters; you know the story. Which kind of begs the question: Do we really need another Robin Hood? And if so, why?
Personally I am firmly in the "No, thanks. I don't really want another Robin Hood" camp on this issue. I haven't even seen all the previous assorted Robins Hood, so why would I want another? To continue with another food-themed simile: it's as though they're bringing new plates out of the kitchen before I can try the ones already on the table. But, I kind of understand the why. The Robin Hood story has always been about class issues. "Rob from the rich; Give to the poor" and all that, but Bathurst's Robin Hood, written by Ben Chandler & David James Kelly injects commentary on privilege and the responsibilities that (should but often don't) come with it. I'm usually uneasy with heavy-handed political commentary in films aimed at kids / "the whole family", but I have to say I was glad it was in here, though I do think certain aspects of the direction were a bit visually "over-seasoned".
So let's get into that. There were some moments that visually lifted too heavily from their influences for me. After the introductory scene narrated by Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) which establishes Robin (Taron Egerton) and Marian's (Eve Hewson's) romance, Robin gets drafted into the Crusades and all of the sudden we are in a straight-up war movie. It was like 12 Strong (which I wrote about all the way back at the beginning of the year) and is actually, one of my favorite parts of the film! I was like "Oh shit! This Robin Hood movie is gonna be Them Arrow Boyz!" and it kind of is for about 20 minutes and I loved it, but only because it is tonally insane. The direction in this sequence is 100% war movie visuals: close, handheld camera work; all the Crusaders / soldiers are holding their arrows drawn in basically the same way as one would hold a rifle; they're wearing what look like t-shirts under armor that looks like bulletproof vests; the Saracens / hostiles even have a damn arrow machine gun! I am not joking!
If the entire movie maintained this tone and level of craziness, Robin Hood would probably be among my favorite movies of the year, but it doesn't. It repeatedly comes back into the normal range for a Robin Hood movie, only to occasionally spike back into these weird "heavy influence" areas. Once Robin returns to Nottingham and finds the Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) has repossessed his home, it becomes a Nolan Batman pastiche with Jamie Foxx's Saracen "John" in the Alfred role, training Robin to become a better archer and warrior in the husk of Loxley Manor. The choice to set these training scenes here rather than Sherwood Forrest say, only helps the stylistic references to similar montages land. If Robin Hood had leaned as heavily into Batman schtick as it does with war movies, maybe giving Robin a utility belt, or like "arrow-rangs" or something, sure it would be goofier, but it would keep that zany tone. By movie's end, it *does* introduce its own version on Two-Face, so "arrow-rangs" is absolutely *not* out of the question.
John tells Robin that his privilege will be his disguise, that he must continue hobnobbing with Nottingham's elite to throw off any suspicion that he is "the Hood" (yeah, we're leaning into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Who Cares-territory calling Batman "the Bat of Gotham" because I guess "Batman" is too silly) and to ingratiate himself with the Sheriff to learn of all his wrongdoings. It's a very Bruce Wayne angle obviously, but it's written well, with Robin eventually being the one who introduces the idea of putting a bounty on the Hood's head.
The political storyline here has one of the bigger diversions from the commonly known Robin Hood story. Instead of the Sheriff's machinations being in service of Prince John and the promise of more power, here he is wringing every last cent (or...farthing?) from the people of Nottingham to raise money for The Church and its war effort. Phrases like "war effort" and "youth vote" are used here which seemed weirdly discordant with the times to me. The whole thing builds to a "we are all Spartacus" robbery of the Church's war taxes where everyone is wearing hoods and bandannas and rioting in the streets with Molotov cocktails and the like, against the Sheriff's guards who suddenly have ye olde batons and riot shields. The imagery was so modern, I'm pretty sure I saw someone carrying an Antifa Gritty sign. (This may be a very Philly-specific reference, and I am not sorry about it). It just felt a little too on-the-nose for me, like Bathurst was elbowing me in the ribs in the theater, whispering "Get it?".
Bathurst's previous credits include primarily British TV, notably the very first episode of Black Mirror (National Anthem; the one where the guy has to have sex with a pig on national television) which makes sense. That kind of frankly ham-fisted (no pun intended) imagery works better in an environment like Black Mirror, which maintains a very rarefied tone, episode-to-episode. If this were a Black Mirror ep, I imagine Ben Mendelsohn might have had an egregious comb-over as well. Instead, he seriously looks like he just sauntered off of a star destroyer, fresh out of orbit around Scarif since he’s wearing a very similar outfit to his Rogue One character Krennic: a long, pale, pretty modern coat, which stays clean to emphasize his wealth, naturally. Overall, the direction is workmanlike, but unremarkable; there aren't any big WOW moments visually but all the action scenes are clear, with a good sense of space, motion and scope.
Mendelsohn, to the surprise of hopefully no one, is a highlight of Robin Hood for me. He doesn't chew scenery the way the late, great Alan Rickman did in Prince of Thieves, but his seething, scowling energy elevates every scene he's in. Robin's former...unit commander (?) back when he was in Them Arrow Boyz, Guy of Gisborne (Paul Anderson) is another highlight, freshly returned from active duty with several other Crusaders, Guy is commissioned into bounty hunter service by the Sheriff. Actually, now that I think about it, if you were to combine the performances of Anderson & Mendelsohn, you'd be approaching Rickman levels. But the villains are always the most fun, so they say.
Most of the "Merry Men" supporting cast are very good as well, though. Jamie Foxx is having a lot of fun in his Little John role and, despite being a little under-utilized, gets some great character moments in the end. Hewson is perfect as Marian and her character is given just enough growth having nothing to do with Robin that Marian comes through as a real character with her own goals and plans, though despite Hewson's abilities she is forced to deliver probably the clunkiest dialogue in the whole movie. Near the top of the third act, when Robin needs a pep-talk, Hewson is forced to deliver the line "If not you, then who? If not now, when?" which immediately made me think of Rage Against the Machine lyrics, and oh, how I laughed (quietly, into my collar; I'm not an animal). Minchin's Friar Tuck is also a more multifaceted character than you'd expect. He's the comic relief, yes, but isn't *only* that, having a hand in some ye olde espionage with Marian that goes down during a fancy dress gala (the visual highlight of the film).
There were only two performances I wasn't terribly impressed by, but one was Robin himself. I expected a Robin Hood with more swagger, but Egerton's was surprisingly bland. At first I thought it was a character choice and that he would grow to become more confident, but that doesn't really happen. It's not a bad performance per se, just lackluster. Jamie Dornan's Will on the other hand, is really nothing. I know *of* him, but this is my first time seeing him perform and, gang...dude has no screen presence.
There are a lot of individual pieces to enjoy in Robin Hood, but the uneven tone and some third-act momentum-killing stop it from being great. Also at some point we start pretending horses are just exactly the same as motor vehicles (as in: Robin and Marian steer a cart pulled by two horses through a wooden gate, as though it were a car and not two living creatures with self-preservation instincts that would absolutely *not* smash themselves through a wall) which is just profoundly silly. I didn't have a bad time at Robin Hood, but I'll likely never think much about it again. However, if this spawns a franchise (as it clearly *wants* to) I vow to cover them all, for you, here on Moviejawn.
If that does happen, I sincerely hope they lean harder into the weirder, more fun aspects they’ve included and they should absolutely continue Marian’s character development, to prevent her from being just “Robin Hood’s girlfriend”. I have a theory that the Sheriff & the Church’s scheming could lead into a plot to have King Richard assassinated in the Crusades, allowing Prince John to remain in power. Mind you, neither Richard nor John appear in this film; this is purely speculation on my part, but I’m all for this if it means I get more Them Arrow Boyz action! In a perfect world, I’d like to see a failed rescue of King Richard via hot-air balloon that results in a sort of medieval Black Hawk Down. But this is just me spitballing. Either way: Happy holidays and Long Live the Movies!