With a figure as ubiquitous as Robin Hood, it’s useful if the film has an additional title to give viewers a clue as to what to expect. Prince of Thieves in 1991 suggested a tale of regal grandeur, and Men in Tights (1993) alerted us to Mel Brooks taking aim at our funny bones, although the 80s TV series Robin of Sherwood made him sound like a caller on a radio phone-in.
Otto Bathurst’s reboot was known as Robin Hood: Origins when first announced in 2015, and arrives on screens with a prequel premise that makes only intermittent references to the familiar Lincoln green legend of yore. Its elaborate set pieces of combat and quivers aplenty more closely resembles a high-end computer game, with underwhelming run-of-the-mill dialogue sewing the action together.
Robin (or “Rob” to his mates), the lord of Loxley Manor, gets his call-up papers to join the Third Crusade, putting the kibosh on his burgeoning romance with Maid Marian (Eve Hewson). He spends the next 20 minutes of the film fighting foes abroad, clashing with his military superiors and saving the life of an Arabian Little John (Jamie Foxx), so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a 12th-century makeover of The Hurt Locker.
Back in Blighty four years later, Robin discovers his previously stately pile in ruins, his plucky paramour in the arms of another (Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlet), and the townsfolk under the oppressive cosh of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s enough to turn your everyday aristocrat into a lean, mean vigilante machine.
“Forget what you’ve seen before, forget what you know,” John tells him, having also rocked up in Nottingham after the Crusades for no apparent reason – advice the average cinema-goer should also heed. First-time feature director Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders, Black Mirror) frames events in what looks less like a Midlands mining town than it does a Fascist hellhole or a particularly expensive Depeche Mode video.
It’s perhaps admirable that Bathurst has gone for a stylistic vision that sidesteps as many of the traditional clichés as possible, but there’s something jarring and awkward about Taron Egerton’s Robin scowling his way through proceedings like the street tough he played in Kingsman: the Secret Service, a kind of Robin Hoody. Also, the psychotherapy back story suggesting the Sheriff’s evildoing can be traced back to the sexual abuse he suffered as a child doesn’t serve any real purpose.
Tim Minchin as a borderline hippy Friar Tuck provides occasional and extremely light comic relief, but for the most part this is a movie that takes itself far too seriously; a po-faced spin on a much-loved myth that pays too much attention to its battle sequences at the expense of giving the viewer any characters to care about. It’s rare for a modern action flick to be so devoid of anyone to root for.
Accents-wise, it’s all over the place. Egerton must be the only medieval aristocrat who talks like a cockney geezer, Foxx’s John would have you believe the Moors started out in Texas, and quite how Hewson’s and Dornan’s Irish brogues found their way to Nottingham is just plain baffling.
To be fair, the action is fairly edge-of-the-seat and elegantly choreographed, the swish of arrows flying through the sky a refreshing alternative to the rat-a-tat of bullets, although Bathurst fails to instil a sense of jeopardy and life-or-death peril. The closing scenes hint that, a healthy box office permitting, this is but the opening chapter of a franchise. Having spent 116 minutes setting it up, let’s hope the next two hours of screen time offer something more tangible and engaging.