Saturday, November 24, 2018

Robin Hood '18

Give the makers of this movie credit: They've led me to discover that Robin of Sherwood is streaming for free on Amazon Prime, and I will be very disappointed if it's not the pretty great version of the mythology that I remember from PBS stations airing it when I was a teenager.

To be fair, I kind of like a lot of this movie, despite the low rating and the plentiful problems listed below - it's arguably a rare case of a movie exceeding expectations while still being, on the whole, bad. Somewhere in this movie is a take on Robin Hood that is legitimately angry about the present-day Sheriffs who protect the rich and powerful but squeeze the working man, and I think that if the filmmakers and studio had trusted their instincts on that and done well with the action (it's tragic that a Hong Kong production company is listed in the credits and the action is such a mess), this could have really struck a chord. Instead, it's going to be seen as the expensive 157th version of a public domain story with the silly-looking machine-stitched costumes, and I'm pretty sure it had ambitions beyond that.

Robin Hood '18

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2018 in AMC Assembly Row #7 (first-run, DCP)

For all the ways that this version of Robin Hood has been easy to mock since previews started appearing, I find myself respecting where it comes from. The filmmakers want to draw as direct a line as they can from the rich and powerful he stole from to the present day, and while they have to wreck the legend in some ways to try and make it work, and never quite gets there, good on them for tapping into it as socially-relevant mythology rather than something tame and regurgitated. They absolutely have the right idea. Too bad they keep screwing it up.

The basics are familiar (even if some of them have only been around since the 1980s Robin of Sherwood TV series) - Lord Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton) goes off to fight in the Crusades, becomes disillusioned, but impresses a Moor (Jamie Foxx) who returns with him to Nottingham, where the Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) has consolidated power. With Robin believed dead, his love Marian (Eve Hewson) has married local activist Will (Jamie Dornan) while also conspiring with Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) to act more directly. Robin and "John" start robbing the taxes that are being levied for the war effort, believing that putting pressure on the Sheriff and the church as "The Hood" while Lord Loxley ingratiates himself will bring them closer to the source of the suffering both in England and Arabia.

As cringe-worthy as the modern costuming, hairstyling, and the like may be when seen in stills, there is something vital and engaging about the early scenes where Robin, Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Anderson), and others move in ways that reference modern urban warfare with their leather armor looking like kevlar; it rapidly establishes that this movie is going to be direct in its allegory rather than placing the audience in a more abstracted, high swashbuckling adventure. Writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly hammer at the idea that Robin is a soldier returning from a war in the Middle East that seems far less cut and dried than when he left to a home he no longer recognizes, while those in power stir up xenophobia so that they can squeeze more out of the commoners while they indulge. By the time the finale comes, a stand-in for centrist politicians is urging the rebels not be so provocative and the Sheriff's men are looking like modern riot police. Screw subtlety, this is a Robin Hood for the Trump-era Resistance, and that clarity of purpose gives it life.

Unfortunately, that clarity isn't always in abundance. A modern telling of the tale can't help but stumble when it comes to a noble leading a peasant revolt, and the fact that the filmmakers recognize and try to address the issue doesn't do much but call attention to it. There's no King John in this version, so the Sheriff seems to be scheming well above his level, and the vague plot between him, the Church, and someone in the Middle East (there are incriminating documents in Arabic) mostly doesn't make sense and what does seems to undermine the mapping to the present in order to have a conspiracy that can extend into sequels. The romantic triangle is the same - it sets up subplots for sequels that will never come, and is doomed anyway; Will is not nearly built up enough to feel like any sort of threat to Robin and Marian.

Worse that the troubles with the script is that the filmmakers seem to have absolutely no idea how to construct a half-decent action scene; this movie is a disaster on that count. They know "cool" - Taron Egerton shoots multiple arrows in rapid succession like a boss - but the simple mechanics of following the action from launch to impact, allowing it to have momentum, is utterly absent; a fistfight will change direction twice within the course of a single punch. This is unforgivable for a movie whose action is built around actual arrows. A wagon chase at the climax should be thrilling - it's got some quality stuntwork (and lower-quality CGI) and uses horses like motorcycles - but it never plays clearly enough to let the audience worry about what might happen next, occasionally sinking to the level where it's hard to tell who is chasing who.

The heck of it is, so much is done well, starting with the casting. Taron Egerton is pretty good as the film's namesake, projecting the right blend of cockiness and general decency, making the Bruce Wayne side of the character convincing enough. Ben Mendelsohn is an ever-reliable villain, and his monologue about the youth that made the Sheriff who he became is just perfectly angry enough to garner a bit of sympathy. Jamie Foxx makes an appealing Little John, grabbing the angry, more central spot and building an uneasy camaraderie with Egerton's Robin. Eve Hewson gets some silly costumes but her Marian has the forceful personality to pull them off (too bad she spends so much time paired with Jamie Dornan's bland Will). Tim Minchin's Tuck kind of feels like the filmmakers wanted Simon Pegg, but that's not a bad take.

Robin Hood may be the most frustrating bad blockbuster in a while - the right people are on screen, the anachronism feels pointed rather than pandering, the tone is the right balance between angry and fun, and given a moment to slow down, the film looks pretty nice. But the action is a killer, even more than the often messy script. The movie is at its best when laying it right out, and those shortcomings are impossible to overcome.

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