ROBIN HOOD Review: Good Evening, Mr. Locksley
It's a tale almost literally as old as time itself. The earliest illustrations of Robin Hood – the mythical thief who stole from the rich and gave to the poor – date back to English ballads from the 13th or 14th century, A.D. From Piers Plowman to Walt Disney to Kevin Costner to Mel Brooks, the legend has altered throughout the ages, yet one thing remained (mostly) clear: he was a champion of the people, and his foes, be them singular (the Sheriff of Nottingham) or collective (the ruling clergy), were fairly clear cut. In modern pop culture, Robin Hood was often an agent of Richard the Lionheart, driven to outlawry during the misrule of Richard's brother John while the 12th century king was fighting in the Third Crusade (a version of this legend became the basis for Ridley Scott's 2010 picture).
In short, the question could be asked: do we really need another Robin Hood movie? Clearly, the answer to that query is "no", but if we’re going to receive a further re-jiggered iteration of Sherwood’s valiant archer, it may as well be as unabashedly fun as Otto Bathurst's unapologetically ultraviolent (yet still somehow PG-13 rated) action flick. The elevator pitch of this review goes: since we already have Ridley's Robin Hood, Bathurst delivers a fairly decent approximation of what Tony Scott's version would’ve looked like, had that genre titan survived to step behind the camera in 2018. This is Robin Hood for the John Wick and Den of Thieves crowd, crammed with cleanly shot and cut set pieces, and sporting a cast who's having more fun with this supposed franchise starter than any set of performers really have any right to. It's a fucking blast.
Taron Egerton will probably never get to suit up as Batman, so at least somebody cast him to play Robin as the Dark Knight. Freshman writing duo Ben Chandler and David James Kelly's script is essentially an origin story, told with disarmingly brisk economy. Egerton's Robin is a rich kid, who catches Maid Marion (Eve Hewson) in the act of trying to steal one of his family's horses. Sympathetic to the poor girl's plight (and refreshingly not blind to his own English privilege), that day he discovers not only a mischievous partner in crime, but the love of his life, whom he's ostensibly ready to build an altruistic kingdom with. Unfortunately, duty calls in the form of a Royal Draft, which enlists Robin into the King's Army and sends him off to the Crusades.
Smash Cut To: combat, where Robin and his men are in the trenches, ducking the arrows of their enemies while trying to just make it out alive. A rather bravura sniper sequence – which borrows more from Vietnam or WW II epics (think: Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan) – immediately clues us in to how this Robin Hood is going to be told: through thrilling, heightened violence. Bathurst's background in prestige TV (helming episodes of Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror) puts him in a solid position to execute this conflict in workmanlike fashion, delivering clear coverage that's cut together (in part by regular Oliver Stone editor Josh Hutshing) with a rather astute eye for geography. Meanwhile, George Steel's sharp cinematography captures even the most ridiculous detail (such as a veritable arrow bazooka four Muslim soldiers wield) with a rather matter-of-fact approach. It's all very silly, but these guys are formally building this borderline comic book world with a straight face.
Robin of Locksley would've served out his entire tour with honor, if it weren't for the dishonorable way his comrades treated the "savages" they were tasked to vanquish in the name of the Church. It's here that he meets "John" (Jamie Foxx) – or so that's what he later tells the white soldier his Saracen name translates to in the King's – who is about to witness the vicious execution of his son. Robin intervenes, but is wounded, as the prisoner sees his seed get beheaded. The duo make their way back to England – one in a hospital hammock, the other as an escapee-turned-stowaway – where the Lord finds that his Manor has been foreclosed upon by the Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) after the newly appointed man of clergy law declared him dead two years earlier and seized his land as part of a War Tax. Down in the peasant pits, protesting these crippling tariffs are Marion and her new political beau, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan): the Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent of this medieval Gotham.
Since we're fairly rooted in a "Nolanverse" iteration of the Caped Crusader (at least, in terms of the characterizations Robin Hood is blatantly borrowing), Mendelsohn's new Sheriff is Carmine Falcone, and the electric Aussie character actor is just having a ball tearing into every bit of scenery he sees. Were this twenty years ago, Gary Oldman would've easily slipped into this super villain’s dark cape, only Mendelsohn makes you wonder if that notoriously intense performer was even that scary to begin with. Entering the movie with a speech about needing funds to fend off the evil overseas "mongrels" who're threatening to invade this sovereign Christian nation, Mendelsohn is fully embracing a timeless brand of fire and brimstone, fleecing the working class so his rich brethren can fight a war nobody understands (apply the barely veiled subtext to any American conflict as you see fit). Later, he reveals a hatred of the Church (born out of abuse he suffered at several Deacons’ claws as a boy) that's so intense it seems like he's actually scaring Egerton as a fellow actor. Everything about his big bad is BIG, as Mendelsohn knows exactly what sort of movie he's in, playing these huge moments to campy perfection.
While the storytelling and action are certainly rooted in modern cinematic language, the wartime strife portion of the picture almost feels indebted to numerous “coming home from ‘Nam” '70s thrillers (think: Gordon's War or Rolling Thunder), where our hero has to clean up a run down shell of the borough they left behind with nothing but their wits and two-fisted might. As soon as John partners with the young hero and starts putting him through extensive training montages – schooling him to shoot and fight with the very best of them – we're in Cannon Films Bloodsport/Kickboxer territory. For all its attempts at cultural currency, this new Robin Hood is a programmer in love with the violent, disreputable cinema of the past, hitting each beat with clockwork precision as it chugs from one elemental sequence to the next. It's a breathless attention to entertainment that many of these movies miss because they're too busy trying to do too many things. Thankfully, Bathurst and his writers recognize that we already know this story inside and out*, so they simply mold it into a hyper-specific type of bloody diversion.
Though the movie is streamlined into a sleek genre form, there's still an interesting bit of commentary about Robin's privilege inserted for good measure. Robin’s status allows him to pull off the Bruce Wayne/Batman duology; in this case, "Robin" being the public face he uses to get into good favor with the Sheriff, while "The Hood" is his masked vigilante alter ego. Yet it's all masterminded by John, who sees that he finally has a chance to infiltrate a white stronghold that would never allow him through the gates otherwise. Robin becomes his puppet of sorts, paying rather flagrant financial homage so that his nemesis never suspects a thing before he robs the bastard blind again. Suddenly, John has a vessel to strike back at the oppressive Church who slaughtered his people, using one of their own as a weapon against them. It's a sly little wrinkle on the character dynamics that feels fresh and fun, as Robin is nothing without the black man who helps make him a hero.
But nobody's really signing up for anything like that from a new Robin Hood (if they’re even signing up for a new Robin Hood at all, that is). The relationship between Robin and John is merely thematic icing on top of an unexpected confection that includes a rollicking carriage chase, numerous speed-ramped shoot outs and dramatic hero shots, with glowing embers floating through the air. Bombs are strapped to arrow tips, and a string of explosives are tied together at one point to create a primitive missile. By the time F. Murray Abraham's snarling, lecherous Cardinal orders a hit squad in from the Crusades to try and take out Sherwood's robbing menace, Bathurst has created a bizarro action movie funhouse. Does this version of Robin Hood set up a sequel? You bet your sweet arrow-slinging ass it does, and this writer would've happily watched it immediately after the credits rolled on this obvious series hopeful. By fitting a tired legend into an impenitent cinematic pattern, Bathurst & Co. have created one of the better pure popcorn movies of the year, and that's a pretty impressive feat for a movie nobody really wanted in the first place.
*A fact that’s addressed in the admittedly corny-ass opening narration from Nuevo Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin).
Robin Hood is in theaters now.