As he did with director Scott in Gladiator, Crowe leavens his ferocity with a sideways wink, his serious brutishness with a charmer's smile, in what is, essentially, an origins story - how Robin and His Merry Band came to be Sherwood's fabled outlaws.
In one scene, Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Max von Sydow stand in the cavernous hearth room of a Nottingham castle. While the dialogue is thick with talk of bonds between fathers and sons, of broken promises between kings and commoners, all you can really think of is how cool is this: the two Australians and the stentorian Swede alchemizing some actorly magic.
Blanchett, of course, is Marion. Marion of Loxley, wife to a knight who's off fighting with Richard. She's left behind to watch as her horses and her harvests are plundered by a gang of renegade orphans in spooky masks. (The images of these nearly naked guerrilla fighters running wild through the woods have a primal, pagan beauty about them.) Von Sydow is her blind and bowed old father-in-law, Sir Walter.
When Robin comes knocking at the castle door, bearing the sword of Sir Robert Loxley - and bearing the news of his death in the Crusades - the father and the wife shudder with grief, and then get on with a wily masquerade: Robin will pretend to be Robert. He will share the lady's chamber (but not her bed) and call Sir Walter his dad, in order to calm the troubled village folk and maintain what stability is left in the Loxley domain.
It's a ruse that Marion first bristles at - you can see her "I will sever your manhood" caution in the Robin Hood trailer - but he being Robin (and Crowe) and she being a woman who has not seen a husband in many a year, love between these two is not hard to imagine.
As long as villainy doth not impede.
And there is plenty of villainy. Tea partyers will like the whiff of protest this Robin Hood emits, with its power elite (Oscar Isaac as the nervously imperious Prince John) demanding taxes, more taxes, and giving nothing in return. Mark Strong - the bad Lord Blackwood of Sherlock Holmes - is the evil double agent, running between London and France, orchestrating tyranny and betrayal. Eileen Atkins is the displeased Queen Mother, Léa Seydoux the French mistress of John, William Hurt an appropriately theatrical royal counsel.
Shot in glorious widescreen and said to have cost a bundle ($155 million? $200 million? Who's counting?), Robin Hood boasts graphic battle scenes and ingenious intrigue, a sense of history that may not be accurate but feels authentic, and a love story that smartly plays with gender and Hollywood stereotypes.
When was the last time you saw a seduction scene in which the man asks the woman to help him remove his clothes?
It's chainmail, in this case, it weighs a ton, and that clasp at the back of Crowe's neck is impossible to get at without assistance.
Robin Hood *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Ridley Scott. With Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Oscar Isaac, Mark Strong, and Max von Sydow. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sex, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/