Warner Bros. had big plans to build a King Arthur shared universe off the back of Guy Ritchie’s $175m monster flop last year. But the numbers didn’t quite add up and the idea was put to bed in the blink of an eye. It seem lessons haven’t been learnt as the Ritchie comparisons are hard to shake in Otto Bathurst’s debut feature film, where the director transfers some of his Peaky Blinders style onto a larger canvas with mostly mediocre results.
The groundwork has also been laid for more films set in Nottingham to follow this modern, action-led take on the Robin Hood legend. Although, with apparently seven more Robin Hood films in production from the likes of DreamWorks, Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney, it looks like there won’t be a shortage of men in tights in the next few years. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe couldn’t reprise the Gladiator magic with their take on the hooded bandit, so can this be any different?
Taron Egerton makes the step up from being a young Kingsman upstart into studio blockbuster leading man territory. Before donning his hoodie and going rogue, he’s introduced as Lord Robin of Loxley, head-over-heels with Lady Marian (Eve Hewson) and generally loving life. That is until he’s drafted into the 14th century British army to join the Crusade forces as part of their pillaging of Arabia and countless other Middle Eastern countries.
It’s here that Bathurst starts his politicisation of Robin Hood, clearly drawing comparisons with the Iraq wars (cemented further later by Robin’s “illegal war” comment) in an action scene that sets the tone for what's to follow. More parallels are drawn between the Sheriff of Nottingham’s (Ben Mendelsohn) stance on immigration and Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, along with an ongoing theme about the growing division between rich and poor and the rampant corruption taking place in the corridors of power. It's ambitious to say the least, and thankfully the message isn't hammered home too heavily to undermine its credibility.
Oddly chosen to represent Islam is Jamie Foxx as John (not so little), who after being captured by the British, is forced to watch the beheading of his son. Two years pass and with Robin announced as killed in action his home is seized and Marian moves on to settle down with ambitious union-type leader, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan). Bitter enemies at first, before realising their aims are the same, Robin and John team up to unsettle the Sheriff and sow the seeds of a social uprising.
Tradition is effectively confined to the sidelines in Bathurst’s vision in an attempt to give it a contemporary look that will appeal to a younger audience. Fans of the old-style won't find much comfort here. Rapid-fire bows replace machine guns, and bow and arrows are poised for action like army assault rifles. Combat gear is highly stylised and even the hoodie is used as a symbol of the rebellion led by Robin. The action comes thick and fast in brutal and kinetic fashion, full of fast-paced zooms and intercut with dramatic slow motion shots.
The Ritchie influences are evident almost everywhere you look, and even Robin’s bow has been retrofitted with a knuckleduster. The pacing can’t be faulted as it blasts through the two hours without much drag but updated as it tries to be, the plotting is as old as Robin’s own legend. This isn’t helped by the lifeless romance between Marian and her outlaw boyfriend, or the largely blank slate performance by Egerton.
Robin Hood feels like a role that has arrived too early for the young English actor. While Foxx and Mandelsohn understand the need to ham it up and bite into the scenery wherever possible, Egerton remains small and understated. One moment he is Bruce Wayne charming his way into the heart of the Sheriff's affairs (scenes where he fares better), before he transforms into a freedom-fighting Batman, but rarely does he have the size of personality needed to make a success of the role.
To say there will be much worse films released this year is something of a back-handed compliment. Does the world need another Robin Hood film? We already know the answer to that. Quite what a younger audience will make of it despite the fresh-faced lead and frantic action is anyone's guess. Superheroes are the order of the day and there is only so much interest you can drum up in a man with a bow and arrow in the current climate (see Hawkeye). Lionsgate have more where this came from, but whether or not it gets to see the light of day remains to be seen.
Robin Hood opens nationwide in the UK on Wednesday 21st November.