'Robin Hood' and Making a War Movie Out of a Folk Hero

The film takes a page from 'American Sniper' — to its detriment.
Screengrab/YouTube
'Robin Hood'

[This story contains spoilers for Lionsgate/Summit's Robin Hood.]

If you feel compelled to yank Robin Hood, English folk hero of yore, out of the past and into the present, you can try one of two tacks. First, you can treat him as a distant cousin to Oliver Queen or perhaps Clint Barton. Second, you can remake him as an analogue to late Navy SEAL sniper and Chris Kyle. Director Otto Bathurst’s new adaptation of Robin Hood’s legend, simply titled Robin Hood, hews closer to the former approach, in keeping with the growing trend of making super those heroes who aren’t, but begins by functioning like a war movie.

Specifically, the pic functions like an Iraq War film, at least to start. That reference to Kyle isn’t an offhanded joke: Robin Hood’s first chapter reads as a folkloric remake of American Sniper, long before Bathurst returns us from the frontlines of the Crusades back to not-so-merry old England, where Robin Hood’s primary plot unfolds. Frankly, the folklore is absent from this stretch of the movie, replaced by grit, washed-out color schemes and costume design that’s really obviously meant to mimic desert fatigues. It’s distracting. Most of all, it’s just straight-up bizarre.

If you’ve missed out on the last 100-plus years of pop culture telling the tale of one Robin of Loxley, and retelling it, and then telling it yet again, here’s the basic outline of the legend: Robin, a well-to-do aristocratic type, is conscripted into the English army to fight in the Crusades, and on return to his family’s manor finds that the evil Sheriff of Nottingham has, in his absence, soaked up the Loxleys' assets and basically ruined their name. So Robin does what any even-tempered man would in his situation: He turns to a life of crime, stealing from the rich, giving to the poor and generally making life difficult for that nasty ol’ Sheriff with the help of his band of Merry Men.

Bathurst’s Robin Hood doesn’t have time for the swashbuckling implied in that premise. It’s much too interested in doing what too many genre projects do: making a statement about America by making a statement about how it’s making a statement about America. Robin Hood has parallels to draw, suggesting that the earliest ballads singing his praises and honoring his outlaw heroism paint a picture not of a character but of the human condition. People who wield power will always abuse their power, and those with wealth will always recklessly attempt to hoard more wealth at the expense of their fellow man, and those with both will wage endless war as a means of maintaining the status quo. Maybe you have a bone to pick with American administrations hell-bent on launching military campaigns in the Middle East, but the English beat them to it.

The visual, textural and political allegory is a stretch even before Robin Hood gets to the part where Robin turns into Legolas, rapid-firing arrows at point-blank range with total precision. If we’re feeling generous, the sheer absurdity of Robin’s bowmanship is in keeping with the film’s introductory tone and its general perception of how bows should function: Bathurst treats them like guns, with characters ducking behind pillars to avoid enemy fire, reloading, nocking and drawing, as if they’re slinging assault weapons rather than rudimentary tools of warfare. If Robin Hood’s color scheme isn’t enough of a hint, this element makes clear the connection Bathurst means to make between the defining conflict of the 2010s and an old-as-time folk story about a chaotic good thief pinching from vulturous nobles to make sure the common people of England can afford to eat.

One of these things is not like the other. Sure, deep under the hood of Robin Hood, the character, and Robin Hood, you’ll find universal themes and the bonds of kinship. But that’s true of most things that aren’t alike beyond those qualities. Once you start thinking about the unique distinctions ingrained in Iraq War movies and Robin Hood, the logic driving Bathurst to fold one into the other falls apart. That he chose, of all Iraq War movies, American Sniper as his analogue for Robin Hood’s backstory sequences is most baffling of all.

It’s not so much that Robin (played by Taron Egerton) is a sniper, though he certainly is, and a soldier with a head for urban combat, to boot. It’s not so much that, like Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), Kyle’s adversary in American Sniper, Yahya, AKA John (Jamie Foxx), leaps and vaults across rooftops, parkour style, his eyes on his English foes all the while as they stalk through the ruins of his city, before they’re cut down by Yahya’s arrows and blades and machine-gun arrow cannons. And it’s not so much that the English soldiers’ threads don’t read as medieval, early modern or anything other than “desert camo.” It’s that all of these elements are brought together intentionally, and despite that intention, they’re never properly addressed again. It’s an aesthetic choice without purpose, to say nothing of merit, a naked effort at giving Robin Hood “edge” in a blockbuster landscape that’s frankly too saturated by properties desperate for edgy credentials.

A better idea: Make a Robin Hood movie that’s a Robin Hood movie. Let Egerton and Foxx loose their charisma all over the screen, stealing with swagger and flash, doing crimes for the greater good and being utterly dashing all at the same time. Make a movie that’s actually fun.