In this lively, tightly edited action film, the familiar Robin Hood tale is refashioned as a revolutionary saga set almost entirely in the city rather than the woodland. We don’t see Sherwood Forest until the last couple of minutes of what is clearly intended to be the first movie in a new franchise. Poor box office and even poorer critical response means sequels look unlikely which is a pity as there are interesting foundations here. Critics are odd- if they like a film any similarities to other movies are declared to be interpretations or ` a new spin` or a homage. If they don’t like it such touches are dismissed as theft or lack of imagination. So while both direction and editing do bring to mind Guy Richie and Christopher Nolan this is a good thing. And if the idea of bows and arrows sounds a bit low key these days then this is the way to present them.
The film’s contemporary allusions are clear enough. The Crusades are refashioned as the sort of narrow street to street skirmishes we see in sundry Middle East conflicts and these are fought using bows like guns. After the briefest of introductions we find Robin of Locksley amongst a crack troop of commando types sporting clothing the same colour as the dusty alleys in which they operate. This is a terrific sequence showing conflict every bit as close and lethal as you like. However Robin’s more principled approach clashes with his commanders and when he tries to save the life of the son of one of the Moorish prisoners, he ends up back on a boat to England. Once home he finds his country pile a ruin after it’s been purloined by the Sherriff while Marion is now living in the city where simmering dissatisfaction percolates but is in need of a leader.
Robin’s evolution from the noble who has lost everything to masked vigilante is enabled by the Moor whose son he tried to save. Known as John, the translation of his Arab name, he gives Robin ideas and inspiration to take on the Sherriff incognito whilst becoming one of his trusted aides in public to discover the truth. There wasn’t actually a Moor in the Robin Hood myth till the Robin of Sherwood tv series but it seems to have become part of the legend now. True the plot’s not subtle and actually offers little change to the legend of old save for the fact that things take place in the city as if the trees of Sherwood have been replaced by the stacked wooden dwellings of the underclass. In that sense this is a prequel to the well known legend.
That legend has never looked so stylised and cool. Gone are tights, Lincoln green and tree hideouts. Instead this is darker and industrial take with Nottingham dominated by an unspecified (coal?) mine from whose multiple outlets flames billow outwards. It has the look of some dystopian future and with clothes that mix modern styles with historical shapes – and are all machine sewn- this is not a movie for those who like historical accuracy. Not that there’s any evidence Robin Hood and co were real anyway!
Dressed for the 1980s rather than the 1480s the always interesting Ben Mendelsohn is the Sherriff and it is remarkable how he always manages to pull something slightly different out of the hat when he seems to play this sort of role in every film! His Sherriff is in the employ of the Church rather than King John (who is barely mentioned) and behind his controlled exterior is a seething rage that emerges later in the film to powerful effect. His introduction could be from a sci-fi film. Taron Egerton excels as Robin bringing both cheekiness and indignation to the fore in equal measure. His heroic turn as the Hood is matched by his slippery way he toadies up to the Sherriff. Looking not unlike a young Kate Bush, Eve Hewson continues the recent trend of brassier Marions who forsake looking worried in long gowns and get stuck in. She also manages to rally people behind Robin’s cause. Jamie Foxx has fun as the wise but fierce John while Tim Minchin adds a lighter touch in an unusual spin on Tuck. F Murray Abraham turns up to as a rather unprincipled Cardinal.
It never occurred to me before but of course calling our hero Robin Hood kind of gives his identity away so here he is known like some superhero as The Hood and his headgear (essentially a hoodie) becomes a symbol of the people’s growing dislike of the Sherriff’s taxes and methods of procuring them. Citizens show their support by nailing hoods to prime locations something which irks the Sherriff even more and seems to be inspired by recent contemporary uprisings which always have a visual symbol be it a flag or a jacket and so on.
What really sells this film though are the action set pieces which are gymnastic and edited sharply making the close quarters archery combat resemble modern conflict. Whereas some films hold back to build up to a huge climax, from the off this Robin Hood creates a bold mixture of pyrotechnics and physical action meaning the action rarely stops. There’s an inventiveness to the way that scenes are presented and some of the weapons they show- especially a sort of machine gun arrow shooter- mean the risks seem real. And however much Robin leaps heroically across the screen while releasing multiple arrows – the film’s signature move- he does land awkwardly and is injured from time to time so is never seen to be a superhero.
It is rare to wish a modern film was a bit longer but a few slower moments might have balanced matters as some of the character work takes place amidst the inferno and there are signs of a few too many edits. Robin’s first meeting with Marion is especially rushed and the pace of the film means that a key speech is not given enough time or focus while one key revelation is deployed in the clumsiest expositional dump possible. On the other hand there’s a great twist at the end.
For me this interpretation of the familiar legend delivers with style and some fantastic action.
Was there ever a real Robin Hood?
This 2018 film is just the latest in a lengthy line of movies and tv series depicting Nottingham’s famous outlaw and all iterations stick to a number of established assumptions. But did Robin Hood really exist at all? Historians reckon that the myth began with storytellers using it to comment on whatever issues were concerning people of the day. So in the fourteenth century he appears as an anti establishment rebel who killed landowners and government officials. Later versions saw him in the role more familiar to us as a dispossessed lord who realises the corruption that exists in the highest places. The first mention of such a person came in 1377’s poem The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland. At this time the name `Robehod` and other variations was used as a common term for criminals and thieves. It may not be coincidence that Robin sounds like `robbing` and that the name may have been a description of a `robbing hood` rather than someone’s actual name. In the fifteenth century ballads were written about a common yeoman living in Sherwood Forest and frequently clashing with the Sherriff. It was in the sixteenth century that Robin was identified as a supporter of King Richard. However no evidence has been found which conclusively identifies any individual as Robin Hood.