Two years ago, after the 2016 presidential election, there was a lot of optimistic hand-wringing about how the movies might respond, how the movies perhaps were obligated to respond, to the shades of autocracy and outright bigotry that had just had a gigantic coming-out party in the United States and the White House. I remember seeing Arrival three times in theaters that fall, clinging to the idea that stories like this were what we needed more of in the coming dark years. Many more people saw their struggle in the bleak heroics of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Even without a victorious ending, we could situate ourselves and romanticize ourselves in the mythology of the movies.
It is perhaps predictable, after sleepwalking through countless gestured-at “shades of Trumpism” in everything from Star Wars to Nutcracker and the Four Realms, that we would arrive at Robin Hood. The latest retelling of Western mythology’s favorite redistributor of wealth is a thoroughly incoherent movie salad that overlays the iconography of Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and the war in Afghanistan onto a proudly anachronistic retelling of the hero’s origin story, and overlays that onto 90 percent of the plot of The Dark Knight. Lots of recent films that have pitted a rebel faction against an evil autocrat have had a Rorschach quality about them; do enough mind gymnastics and you can find the beleaguered tribe of your choosing in the ragtag band of protagonists. Good luck finding any meaningful thread to hitch your wagon to in Robin Hood.
Not that this should be how we watch movies, especially movies as immaterial as Robin Hood. But the film, written by Ben Chandler and David James Kelly (two IMDb mystery men with scant credits to their name before this), does all it can to throw in the maximum number of modern-day political signifiers that the plot’s flimsy structure can hold, while conveniently eliding saying anything about any of it. In this version of the story and in keeping with later versions of the legend, Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton) is a young man of noble birth, who is sent away to fight in the Crusades and has his land stolen from him by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) in his absence. What’s more, his sweetie Marian (Eve Hewson), thinking he was dead, has coupled up with a dully handsome aspiring politician. Upon his return, he teams up with John (Jamie Foxx), the Moorish prisoner he freed during the war, and they plot a way to get their revenge, primarily by defunding the Crusades and giving the war chest back to the overtaxed peasants.
I will admit that “Defund the Crusades” is a tantalizingly ahistorical premise for a movie, and I was willing to weather all the leather hoodies and 15th-century haute couture to see where it went, but even on a technical level, Robin Hood is impossible to follow anywhere. Director Otto Bathurst (in his feature debut after a handful of notable British TV credits) is lucky he’s got as appealing a trio as Egerton, Foxx, and Mendelsohn in front, because the film’s copious action sequences are edited so chaotically and illogically the eye quickly becomes exhausted. By the time Robin’s rebel faction is tossing Molotov cocktails over the riot-geared police force of Nottingham, and it’s been suggested that the church’s Crusade is in cahoots with “the Arabians,” I was lost, and I had to tap out. Hopefully all will be explained in the sequel the film overtly sets up, and in the meantime we can abandon the increasingly meaningless faux-political iconography of post-Trump mainstream cinema.