If you’re a purist about Robin Hood, then you probably won’t go for “Robin Hood.” It’s a let’s-retrofit-the-legend-for-the-kids movie, and it’s not shy about its fast and furious action-and-attitude makeover tendencies. The battle scenes, fought with bows and arrows, really are battles, in which the arrows land with the force of bullets, destroying on contact. The cast is all fresh-faced youth-idol sexiness: Taron Egerton, from the “Kingsman” films, playing the sort of boy-band Robin Hood a high schooler might hang a poster of in her bedroom; Eve Hewson, who — you heard it here first — has the stuff to be a major movie star (more on that in a moment), as a supremely sensual and spirited Marian who takes her commands from no man; and Jamie Dornan, from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” films, as Marian’s earnest scraggle-bearded boyfriend. (You know a movie is about pretty people when Jamie Dornan is cast as the unsexy boring guy.)
Beyond that, the movie treats Robin Hood as a 14th-century dark knight, a mystery avenger known as “the Hood,” with Robin of Loxley as his Bruce Wayne alter ego. (That duality, of course, is built into the legend, but it plays here as a knowing knockoff of superhero culture.) The masses of poor folk Robin is fighting for are like something out of a YA dystopia, living in the dark squalid midst of the mines they toil at each day.
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And in case that isn’t enough for you…the movie is an origin story! None of the new “Robin Hood” takes place in Sherwood Forest. It’s set in the castle corridors and teeming streets of Nottingham, a vast medieval village where Robin, an aristocrat who returns after fighting for the British in Arabia, learns that his family estate has been seized by the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Robin also loses his squeeze, Marian, who was told by the sheriff that he was killed in battle. (That’s why she’s now with Dornan’s Will.) The movie is about how a broken dude turns himself into a freedom fighter.
But go ahead, object all you want to this impure, leeching-after-youth degradation of a legend. “Robin Hood” is no classic, but if it sometimes seems like it’s trying to be “Baz Luhrmann’s Robin Hood,” more power to it. The movie is a diverting live-wire lark — one that, for my money, gets closer to the spirit of what Robin Hood is about than the logy 1991 Kevin Costner version or the dismal 2010 Russell Crowe version. That both those films, in different ways, so failed to conjure the devil-may-care, lighter-than-air rambunctiousness of the Robin Hood saga may be a sign that it’s finally time to stop telling this story with the same old tropes. It’s not as if anyone will ever match the 1938 “The Adventures of Robin Hood” anyway; in that madly colorful swashbuckler, Errol Flynn had the majestic mirth and airy pluck of a leaping rascal god, and his spirit was contagious. For some reason, Costner and Crowe both played Robin Hood by troweling on the glum.
The new “Robin Hood” at least brushes up against the heart of the story: the dashing flippancy of a valorous outlaw, and the duel of wits that unfurls between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Taron Egerton plays Robin with a twinkle, and he’s especially good when Robin of Loxley, posing as the sheriff’s ally, plays mind games with him. He’s like a debonair corporate climber who knows how to exploit his boss’s weakness, and the sheriff gives him plenty to work with. Ben Mendelsohn’s performance is nothing short of sensational. His look is daringly out of period — the long leather coats of a downtown fop, a neatly parted haircut out of the 1980s — and he speaks with a slight lisp of anger, turning the sheriff into an arrestingly logical fascist, with a backstory of childhood pain that morphs all too convincingly into adult sadism. Mendelsohn is all icy control until he starts fulminating, at which point you can’t take your eyes off him.
The director, Otto Bathurst, who has worked in series television (this is his first feature), knows how to deliver the lavishly staged action goods, but he also does face-offs on a human scale. Characters we know pop up here and there, like Tuck (Tim Minchin), who is still taking confessionals in church and is all sheepish, long-haired millennial self-doubt. So do actors like F. Murray Abraham, who has a delectable time as the cardinal who’s in cahoots with the sheriff; Abraham’s scowling satire of religious hypocrisy is just pointed enough to give off a glimmer of timeliness. As for Jamie Foxx, he’s a ball of magnetic energy as John, the proud Arabian who loses his hand (and son) in the Crusades, then stows away on Robin’s military ship and forms a mutually beneficial bond with him. Foxx brings his scenes a raw fury that ignites the movie.
And then, of course, there’s Marian. Eve Hewson, who is Bono’s daughter, has a romantic presence expressed through a timeless gaze — she holds the screen with the kind of electrifying radiance you’re either born with or you’re not. She roots this youth rabble-rouser in something recognizably heartfelt, making a stirring case for the people to join Robin’s cause, yet beyond that Hewson simply has it. At the end, the film nods toward a sequel (set, presumably, in Sherwood Forest) with a pretty damn good twist of villainy, and the presence of an actress like Hewson is one reason you actually want to see it.