If you think about it, Robin Hood—despite the avalanche of movies, telefilms, TV series and spoofs about him—has not fared at all well on screens big or small. With the exception of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” the Warner Bros. classic of 1938 starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains and a score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the pickings are very slim; certainly more recent pictures with Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe have been pretty much busts. To add insult to injury, a Disney animated version was one of that studio’s weakest feature cartoons, and Mel Brooks’s takeoff “Men in Tights” one of his dreariest movies. Even Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn couldn’t save the late James Goldman’s revisionist take “Robin and Marian.”
To the long, dreary list may now be added this supposedly cool modern spin on the old tale, aimed squarely at today’s action-oriented youth market. A bizarre, goofy, almost unbelievably awful reworking of the legend, the debut feature by Otto Bathurst, who’s previously done some series TV, belongs near the very bottom in the Robin Hood hall of shame, not just among the worst versions of the story but the worst movies of the year.
The plot is specifically situated during the Third Crusade, which would place it in the late twelfth century, but visually the look—in sets and costumes (courtesy of production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos and costumer Julian Day)—is a mash-up of medieval rags, vaguely proto-industrial grime and modernist hipsterism, to which is added a dollop of utter garishness. The result is visual ugliness of an extraordinary sort, especially when combined in the action sequences with chaotic cinematography by George Steel and messily whiplash editing by Chris Barwell and Joe Hutshing.
The narrative cobbled together by Ben Chandler and David James Kelly is an incoherent jumble. Robin (Taron Egerton, acting like something out of a CW teen melodrama) is the lord of Loxley, in love with Marian (Eve Hewson, who smiles a lot and wears pretty clothes) until he’s “drafted” to go on crusade by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn, smirking and hissing throughout). In battle in “Arabia” he engages in battles in which bows and arrows (some in the form of machine-gun-like crossbows) appear to be the preferred weapons, with knives and swords appearing only occasionally. While trying to save the life of a Moslem prisoner—the son of chieftain Yahya (Jamie Foxx, all empty bluster)—from the bloodthirsty Guy of Gisborne (snarling Paul Anderson), Robin is wounded and sent home for medical reasons.
There he finds that he was reported dead, his lands have been seized by the sheriff, and Marian has moved on to wed Will Tillman (Jamie Dornan), a champion of the people. Robin is desolate, but Yahya—now calling himself John—has stowed away on Robin’s ship and now becomes his mentor in marksmanship and dedication to the cause of bringing down the sheriff, who—it turns out—is the chief financier of the crusade, which is merely a war fabricated by the evil church to fill its coffers and keep the people in thrall. (Who knew that Nottingham, of all places, was such a vital fiscal cog in the medieval war machine?)
In any event, Robin becomes The Hood, robbing the sheriff in increasingly reckless heists while posing as his loyal friend—an act that earns him a truly weird monologue by Mendelsohn in which he pours out the truth about his unhappy childhood. But it also earns Robin a private conference with the church’s ultimate representative, the malevolent Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham, oozing hypocrisy from every pore in his withered face), who makes clear the church’s ultimate objective is to continue ruling by fear and, in addition, supplant the king (unseen, but presumably Richard the Lionhearted). Meanwhile Marian is conspiring with Friar Tuck (played by a comically heroic type by Tim Minchin) to get the legal goods on the sheriff.
It all comes down to a big confrontation between Robin, Marian, John and “the people” against the sheriff, Guy (his new henchman) and his army of soldiers. Guess who wins. But there’s a concluding surprise that points the way to a sequel. Fat chance.
This “Robin Hood” represents a totally misguided conception—it’s hard to imagine that anybody ever believed it a good idea, let alone agreed to finance it (what were you thinking, Leonardo?)—that has been put on the screen with a truly gruesome combination of arrogance and ineptitude. It does, however, feature one scene that’s worth seeing, in which Mendelsohn and Abraham appear together, trying to outdo each other in lip-smacking, scenery-chewing villainy. It has to represent a nadir in the careers of both actors, but it encapsulates in a few seconds the sheer ghastliness of this whole horrible movie.