Say this and little else for the new Robin Hood movie: It’s less of a self-serious slog than the last Robin Hood movie. Ridley Scott’s 2010 take on the legendary bandit leeched all the spritely appeal from its centuries-old material, fashioning a dour and dubiously “historical” origin story for the Merry Men. It was the epitome, in other words, of a tediously gritty reboot. The new Robin Hood isn’t much better, to be clear: Directed by Otto Bathurst, who helmed the Black Mirror pilot and a few episodes of Peaky Blinders, this dumb and generic spectacle similarly explores the early adventures of its title character, draping them in the trends of modern action cinema. (Think more CGI, winking wisecracks, and premature franchise setup, less of Scott’s dirt-on-the-lens swordplay.) But at least Robin himself, the famous outlaw archer, isn’t as much of a glowering bore as the version Russell Crowe played. Robbing from the rich to give to the poor, he seems to be having some actual fun. Viewers will probably end up wishing the feeling were more contagious.
Endless opening voice-over labors hard to convince us that this isn’t the same-old take on the character. But the deviations are more cosmetic than anything else. As is often the case, Robin Of Loxley (Taron Egerton, from those dreadful Kingsman movies) has been conceived as a nobleman drafted into the Crusades. During an early standoff in an Arabian battle zone straight out of an Iraq War movie—there’s even the primitive equivalent of a machine-gun turret—Robin trades blows with the future Little John (Jamie Foxx), a vengeful Moorish soldier who will become his mentor. Back in Nottingham, the sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) is conspiring with the church to seize power from the crown, using the Trumpian tactic of scapegoating the Arab world. But to pull off his plan, this scoundrel will need funds—and so Robin dons the garb of an outlaw and begins knocking off the royal collectors, all while playing the part of the sheriff’s new aristocratic confidante. He’s a 14th-century Batman (“The Hood,” the public comes to call him), and Robin Hood underlines that impression with the persistent whine and boom of its imitation Hans Zimmer score. (All the king’s gold says this film was temp-edited to the Dark Knight soundtrack.)
Much energy has been expended on giving the ancient narrative a youth-friendly makeover. If the action is a speed-ramped eyesore, supplying Robin’s arrow-firing exploits the fast-slow-fast cadence of a Zack Snyder superhero brawl, the overriding aesthetic is closer to Assassin’s Creed: Decked out in a darker, more fashionable shade of green, Egerton’s hooded prince of thieves races across the rooftops and narrow wooden walkways of a Nottingham that seems to have been city-planned with parkour in mind. The script, credited to Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, keeps stuffing everyone’s mouths with vaguely, amusingly anachronistic expressions: “Don’t handle me,” one character barks, while another begins his peacekeeping appeal with a “Look, I get it.” And that’s to say nothing of the chicly tailored getups, or the way every medieval warrior here boasts perfectly trimmed facial hair and salon-quality ’dos. “I would bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen,” that pesky scene-setting narration begins, which feels a bit like the film blaming its own refusal to crack a book on its prospective audience.
To hook the kids, Robin Hood also works in a YA-style triangle, with Robin competing for the affections of his lost love, Marion (Eve Hewson), who’s taken up with a brooding total baxter of a politician (50 Shades survivor Jamie Dornan) in our folk hero’s absence. Perhaps this subplot would feel less deadeningly predictable if the film didn’t flirt with making Marion an ass-kicker herself (she’s introduced in disguise, trying to steal a horse from her noble-born love interest), before relegating her to the sidelines. Robin Hood offers some lightly revisionist takes on most of its principals—besides Foxx’s newly intense, sagely badass John, there’s Tim Minchin doing a flustered Simon Pegg version of Friar Tuck. But the only actor here that seems to find a real character in his iconic role is Mendelsohn, who delivers a monologue about his hatred of lords that reveals hidden reservoirs of hurt underneath the usual cartoon villainy. Otherwise, this dopey franchise hopeful breaks from tradition mainly in setting: Only in the final minutes do we catch a verdant glimpse of Sherwood Forest, which the filmmakers are saving for a sequel that probably won’t get made. And come to think of it, that was true of Scott’s dismal film, too.