“Forget history,” the opening narration to Otto Bathurst’s “Robin Hood” intones. “Forget everything you think you know.” And while you’re at it, forget pacing, character development and general excitement. This new “Robin Hood” certainly does.
The legend of Sherwood Forest’s favorite wealth redistributor has been retold umpteen times in Hollywood, from the derring-do of the 1938 Errol Flynn version to the relative realism of the 2010 Ridley Scott version to the so-goofy-it’s-fun Kevin Costner 1991 version.
So I guess there’s room for an anonymous action-movie version that borrows liberally from both “The Hunger Games” and “Assassin’s Creed,” although this self-serious new “Robin Hood” squeezes out the fun. It also seems strangely embarrassed to be set in the 14th century, with ham-handed contemporary references to the Iraq War and the immigration debate, and costumes that look more "Star Trek" than Middle Ages.
Taron Egerton of the “Kingsman” movies is engaging enough as Robin of Loxley, who in this incarnation is a beloved lord in Nottingham, a dirty industrial mining town in this version. He catches a horse thief in his stables, who turns out to be Marian (Eve Hewson). It’s a potentially nifty role reversal for a character usually relegated to being a damsel in distress, a reversal the film quickly forgets about and makes Marian the damsel in distress anyway.
Robin is drafted by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn, still wearing his “Ready Player One” duds) to go fight the Crusades. The war is bizarrely presented as if it were a contemporary war movie like “Black Hawk Down,” with machine-gun contraptions that can shoot rapid-fire arrows and (I swear I’m not making this up) the soldiers calling in giant “stone strikes” instead of airstrikes on their enemies.
Robin rebels against the cruelty of his commanding officers, earning him an arrow in the chest from his own men and the respect of an imprisoned Moor named John (Jamie Foxx, only intermittently remembering his character is from the Middle East). John follows the disgraced Robin back to Nottingham, where he learns that the Sheriff seized his castle in his absence. The Sheriff, with the backing of corrupt church elders, seems to be profiting off of the Crusades, and when he rails against the invasion of Muslim “foreigners,” he sounds more like Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“Little” John advises Robin on how to hit back at the Sheriff, becoming a masked vigilante and robbing the coffers of the Sheriff and the church. This leads to a lot of rather murky action scenes, most of them shot at night. Bathurst and director of photography George Steel love slo-mo effects and the look of flakes of ash floating in the air, but they can’t put together a memorable, sustained action set piece.
Aside from John, Robin does all of this without much of a band of Merry Men. Tuck (Tim Minchin) is largely on the sidelines and Will Scarlet (a glowering Jamie Dornan from “Fifty Shades of Grey”) doesn’t exactly seem trustworthy.
“Robin Hood” is fair game to be reinvented for a new generation. But in its attempt to be relevant, this muddled version wanders too far from the central appeal of the legend, with no sense of adventure. It also spends a lot of effort trying to set up a sequel, which seems like the one wildly optimistic element of this grim “Hood.”