In many respects, the BBC’s “Robin Hood” feels like a throwback to the classic Disney adventures of the 1950s, where Zorro or the Swamp Fox would battle the same assortment of ruthless but semi-inept villains week after week, while the music worked extra hard to obscure the relatively chintzy budgets and action sequences. Alas, it played better then, and if this attempt to put a youthful spin on Robin Hood isn’t bad per se, it’s at best a warmed-over remake that would be diverting for kids if it wasn’t occasionally quite violent.
Drawing from various aspects of “Robin Hood” lore, the 13-episode series opens with Robin (Jonas Armstrong) and comic-relief sidekick Much (Sam Troughton) returning from five years off fighting the Crusades, which is puzzling, since Robin looks to be about 22. Apparently, they don’t make Crusaders like they used to.
Jolly ol’ England, unfortunately, isn’t terribly jolly under the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) and Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage), eventually prompting Robin into an act of defiance that will cost him his title and lands. It’s only in the second episode, though, that the whole “rob from the rich, give to the poor” idea dawns on him, as he assembles his rather puny band of supporters (Merry Men would be an overstatement) and confronts the Sheriff, who has taken to cutting out peasants’ tongues if they won’t divulge Robin’s whereabouts.
While no Errol Flynn, Armstrong does play Robin as a ladies man with a roguish smile, bantering with Marian (Lucy Griffiths), who seeks to assist him from within the Sheriff’s domain. Still, the effort to create a slightly hip, next-gen bow-slinger never quite coalesces, perhaps because the tone is so uneven. As a case in point, Robin and the Sheriff engage in several snippy exchanges during the initial batch of episodes, but the Sheriff awkwardly oscillates between being a campy Snidely Whiplash and genuinely evil, making you wonder why Robin doesn’t put an arrow through his forehead when given the chance.
As for the customary feats of derring-do, as staged on location in Hungary, they aren’t especially daring, leaning heavily on the whizzing arrows that were the best feature of the otherwise-forgettable Kevin Costner version.
If nothing else, this latest schlep back through Sherwood Forest delivers another reminder that while there are several things the Brits do particularly well in TV — most notably costume dramas, acerbic comedy and the occasional crime thriller — action, as a rule, isn’t one of them. All of which might explain why “Robin Hood” ends up being a bit off-target.