‘Robin Hood’ Review: Surprisingly political and… not half bad?

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If there was one thing I wasn’t expecting during the first 45 minutes of Otto Bathurst’s Robin Hood, it was how much it reminded me of Cobalt Neural 9, a now-legendary sci-fi project that the Wachowski siblings were readying right around the same time they were trying to get Cloud Atlas off of the ground. That film — though it was never produced and perhaps was made to make a big budget oddity like the film they wound up crafting seem palatable to financiers — was about a romance between an embittered US Soldier and an Iraqi, and their ultimate decision to assassinate the man who ruined their chances for happiness: George W. Bush. Though there’s no romance between Robin of Lockley (Taron Egerton) and Little John (Jamie Foxx), there is a similar through-line: The former, a Lord turned solider, and the latter, an assassin (in the traditional sense), are both radicalized in an overseas conflict — the Third Crusade — that neither wanted to be a part of in the first place, and decide together to bring financial ruin upon the forces that brought them together — the Catholic Church and their enforcer, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) — via some forced redistribution of wealth. It’s an intriguing mixture, full of anti-clerical sentiment and the glorification of anti-fascist direction, that has far more going on underneath the hood than those accusing it of “champagne socialism” would have you believe.

Now, let’s temper some of those expectations a bit: The aesthetic Bathurst and company have crafted still kind of sucks, and the hyper-modern historical setting doesn’t totally work, especially in the middle section of the film, when the filmmaker strains to find something with as much metaphorical importance as the first and final acts. Egerton’s costume is, well, egregiously bad, and it made me long for the days of Errol Flynn’s green tights. The action is occasionally muddled, and some of the themes — at least on a character level — are a bit silly and derivative of other, stronger works (when you have someone deliver the “Superman” speech from Kill Bill to a character about who they are, well, you run dangerously close to losing me). The Batman characterization, as well, where Robin is the disguise and “the Hood” is the man himself, is a bit lame, but it’s not distractingly bad.

But the truth of the matter is, this is still somewhere in the top half of Robin Hood adaptations, just for its energy and radical relevance. It is head and shoulders above anything since the Disney cartoon, and miles more interesting than Sir Ridley Scott’s anemic, tired, bloated Robin Hood from 2010 (and I mean the movie, not the lead performance by Russell Crowe, though you could probably use the same descriptors). The action is competently filmed (including a fun chase sequence on horseback in a mining village), Egerton and Foxx are a charming enough pairing, as you might have assumed, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in the margins.

Amongst the cast, Mendelsohn is by far the film’s finest asset — the man’s been getting typecast as villains for years now, and thanks to his particular frame-mauling energy, he’s somehow not worn out his welcome. There’s a scene in which he details his childhood abuse at the hands of slovenly drunken lords that comes close to rivaling Gary Busey’s campy showstopper of a speech from Surviving the Game back some twenty years ago. He’s a blissfully ugly Trump stand-in, whose large frame casts a wide shadow over the picture, with his hatred of Muslims (including a scene where he hints at a particular form of racist torture that doesn’t feel out of bounds), power complex and willingness to collude with outside forces to cement his grasp on power. Fitting enough that those who oppose him cover their faces with bandanas and hurl medieval Molotov cocktails at silver-clad soldiers (an effective enough stand in for riot gear) in the film’s final action sequence, where a populist uprising finally causes some chaos as he’s about to seize the reins. But Mendelsohn is wise enough to pair all of this with just enough pathos to make it interesting: in his head, he’s Robin with grander, worldwide ambitions, stealing power away from the cruelty of the old monied, and one wonders what a sympathetic portrayal — a la the unproduced Nottingham screenplay that Scott neutered for his Robin Hood — might have looked like in similar hands.

Either way, Mendelsohn is paired well with F. Murray Abraham, here playing a scheming Cardinal sent from Rome to ensure that the thief is dealt with and that no further cash is lost in the process, and it’s in Abraham’s performance that we get a few truly radical lines of dialogue, including one in which the Cardinal insists that the Church created Hell because “fear is the strongest tool in God’s arsenal.” Faith itself — as represented in the character of Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) — is never a target, but the Church most definitely is, which wants the people afraid and aware of their place in the world. Commoners only exist to finance their foreign wars and to line their pockets with finery, and in order to extract their hard-earned money from them, they hold their very souls ransom. And, as the film suggests, the only way to take on such fascist tyranny is to confront it directly, with, at least in this case, a bow and arrow. An equal amount of scorn is heaped upon the politically ambitious opposition member Will Tillman (Jamie Dornan), who prides his own career over potentially doing the right thing and saving lives, and his ending is ultimately one of the most interesting things about the film, though it immediately jumps right into cringe-y territory with one of the worst credit sequences in recent memory.

Regardless, it’s worth praising that a studio film this directly and angrily political managed to snake its way through the blockbuster-by-committee process and maintain some sort of its original identity. It’s not necessarily hypocritical to craft populist entertainment from within the profit-driven studio system — indeed, we’ve rightfully praised a number of works this year alone for their unexpected edge — and, if anything, the ethical compromises enhance the subversive power of the work itself by making it available to as wide of an audience as such a release can reach. In an era in which even the mildest sentiment can be construed as something vaguely controversial, it’s nice to have a full-throated and guttural yell out there in the cinematic studio fantasy landscape.

No matter what, it’ll still be incredibly fun to watch Fox News talking heads lose their goddamn minds over a Robin Hood movie in the midst of their Thanksgiving coverage, and I think we can all be thankful for the schadenfreude that will follow no matter if you like this film or not.

Featured image via Summit Entertainment.