By Preston Wilder
Robin Hood, yes – but for now. For today. It’s 2018, we don’t want men in tights. Well OK, we support men in tights, we’re all non-binary here, but not bandits in Sherwood Forest. Not merry men, for goodness sake! It’s 2018, people aren’t merry. You think the folks struggling to pay their rent, crushed beneath the capitalist jackboot, are merry? Give me a Robin who’s relevant, and down with the kids. You know how the anarchists all wore V for Vendetta masks when they went to their Occupy Whatevers? I want them wearing Robin Hood masks.
That, I assume, was the pitch for this caffeinated, amusingly terrible new version of Robin Hood – and that’s what we get, with Marian (Eve Hewson) now an activist who rambles about “the elite” and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) an evil populist who inflames the mob with fears of a Muslim invasion (“They hate us! Our culture, our religion!”). It’s unclear how hordes of Saracens are going to come all the way to England in the 12th century – though Little John (Jamie Foxx) is now a Moor, like Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and at one point asks for money by posing as a war veteran, so who knows. If the English army had enough black soldiers in the 12th century that such a ruse could work on the streets of Nottingham, I guess anything’s possible.
“I could bore you with the history,” claims the opening voice-over, “but you wouldn’t listen”. It’s true, we probably wouldn’t, just because we’ve been here before – but there’s un-historical, and then there’s plain silly. I don’t know how exactly aristocrats were summoned to war by their sovereign in those days, but did a messenger really turn up on their doorstep with a standard form? “You are hereby notified of your selection for military service in ______,” it reads – and some flunkey has neatly inscribed “the Third Crusade” in the appropriate space. Production design is weird in this movie, Friar Tuck’s church looming over the town like a Roman palace. The rebooted Sheriff is especially outlandish, now a tormented figure who hates aristos (he was abused by them as a child) and plots world domination, being in league with Catholics in Rome to finance the entire Arab army through the contributions of the good people of Nottingham. Not bad, for a county sheriff in a medium-sized English town.
And the plot? Not wildly different, to be honest, except that Robin of Locksley (Tarin Egerton) is now more of a Zorro figure, playing the landowner by day and robbing the rich as a masked figure known as ‘The Hood’ by night. You’d think someone would make the connection, since the mask only covers half his face (“Call that a disguise?” scoffs Marian) and ‘The Hood’ appears at around the same time as Robin comes home from the Crusades, but we’re not going to fret about that. We could, however, fret about a missed opportunity. In older variations, like The Mark of Zorro (1940), our hero was forced to suffer the scorn of the woman he loved for being a useless aristo, unable to reveal that he was in fact Zorro; the same poignant sub-plot could easily have been added here – but the film is so busy making Marian ‘relevant’, it forgets to give her anything to do.
As so often, the first hour is fun, the second gets tiresome. An extended battle in “the mines” really should’ve been the climax, 90 minutes of this stuff being more than enough (Nottingham, by the way, is now depleted, its people forced to work in “the mines” so as to pay the Sheriff’s war tax; so much for outlaws scampering through Sherwood Forest). The film’s best gimmick is simply to ignore the period setting, so for instance the Third Crusade gets played as a war movie that could be taking place in 21st-century Iraq. “He’s reloading!” cries Robin, taking advantage of a lull as an Arab sniper reloads his crossbow; that’s correct, the enemy have bows which can shoot a dozen arrows at once, like machine guns. I could bore you with the history…
It’s dumb, of course. Injecting modern politics into a 12th-century legend isn’t going to rejuvenate Robin Hood, any more than injecting Sarf London attitude rejuvenated last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; if anything it does the opposite, showing up the studio’s desperation and the folly of going back to such stale, well-known properties – not to mention the spurious aspect of co-opting protest politics in a $100 million Hollywood blockbuster. The film is a non-starter, though I liked it more than Ridley Scott’s snooze-worthy version from eight years ago. Is this the Robin Hood we need in 2018? No. But it’s probably the one we deserve.
DIRECTED BY Otto Bathurst
STARRING Tarin Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn
US 2018 116 mins