Just as the real British government hangs in the balance, here’s a fictional hero ready to ride in and show the way: Robin Hood, freshly minted in a brand-new movie version.
Not just being sarcastic with the political slant: Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” suggests nothing less than Robin Hood as the virtual creator of Britain, the man behind the Magna Carta (or a piece of paper that sounds very like it).
Russell Crowe plays Robin in what is basically a pre-outlaw depiction of the character: We get only one scene of Robin and his merry men stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
The rest of the time, Robin Longstride (the Hood part comes later) is a returning war veteran, bringing the sword of a dead comrade to Nottingham, where our hero is enlisted to masquerade as the departed.
This means play-acting a marriage with Marion (Cate Blanchett, bringing much more to the role than exists on the page). But the film, to its credit, is less about Robin’s individual derring-do and more about the larger portrait of power in England at the end of the 12th century.
With Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston) dispatched early on, the king’s craven younger brother John (Oscar Isaac) assumes the throne. As he’s fond of taxing the peasants beyond endurance, he’s about as popular with the English people as he is with his French enemies.
These machinations are neatly traced by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (and other writers, credited and otherwise), who keeps us moving from the chambers of power in London to the battlefields of France to the environs of Sherwood Forest.
Because this approach is heavier on storytelling than action, it’s up to director Scott (reuniting here with his “Gladiator” star) to keep the clock ticking. By and large, he succeeds; this is a pleasantly old-fashioned period piece, which means it may struggle to keep the attention of the summer-movie audience trained by “Transformers” movies.
The film is stately enough to conjure up bad memories of Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” but the storytelling here is crisper — and the movie has its trump card in Russell Crowe, who’s a long stride more compelling than Orlando Bloom.
It’s good to see Crowe back in his groove as the thinking person’s action hero, but part of the fun of the film is its very large cast. Some of them are familiar, such as Max von Sydow and William Hurt, others less so (Mark Strong, late of “Kick-Ass,” etches another expert portrait in nastiness).
The Sheriff of Nottingham is relegated to the sidelines here, although Matthew Macfadyen is amusing in the part, and Mark Addy is a natural as portly Friar Tuck.
I like the film’s mostly serious approach, which leaves behind the twinkle of Errol Flynn’s famed portrayal in favor of historical heft — perhaps the tone is set by the leads, as Crowe is 46 and Blanchett 41, quite seasoned to be involved in a Robin Hood origin story.
But hey, it works. As the legend of Robin Hood has proved for centuries, some things are ageless.