Just when you think there isn't enough left to say about Robin Hood to fill a tweet – there have been more than 30 Hollywood versions of his story – along comes Russell Crowe and his Gladiator director, Ridley Scott, with a heap of backstory. Are we not entertained? Any resemblance to the Oscar-winning Gladiator is purely not coincidental.
Robin Hood sprawls its rousing action over nearly two and a half hours, playing up the battles, the flaming arrows, the clashing swords, the battering rams and the burning pitch to the maximus. But Robin (Crowe), Marion (Cate Blanchett) and the Merry Men don't even shack up in Sherwood Forest till the last scene. Scott and Crowe, who also worked together on American Gangster, Body of Lies and A Good Year (not good), are hellbent on setting their origin story in the context of history. A tough job, considering that this 13th-century English outlaw is less fact than fantasy. Serious business means out with the tights, the feathers and the 1991 stoner-dude take from a very American Kevin Costner. What this Robin Hood lacks in fun it makes up for in epic sweep.
Scott throws us right into the muck as we meet Crowe's Robin Longstride, a soldier in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). This king has bankrupted England in the Crusades and left his country vulnerable to attack from France, where he is killed on his way home. His successor, Prince John (Oscar Isaac), is a tyrant under the influence of Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), a French ally who encourages John to alienate his barons, notably William Marshall (William Hurt), by taxing them harshly and leaving the king's subjects in abject poverty.
Robin's return to the homeland he hasn't seen since childhood brings back memories of his father, who was assassinated for writing a charter (a harbinger of the Magna Carta) that protected the rights of the common man. His father's friend, the nearly blind Sir Walter Loxley (a splendid, lively Max von Sydow), takes Robin in and concocts a plan: Robin will pretend he is Sir Walter's son, killed in battle, to protect the property rights of the son's widow, Marion. Romance blooms, hesitantly, then hotly. Blanchett is a fireball, going head-to-head with Crowe as lover and warrior.
Are you with me? Robin Hood, written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) with an eye on the present as well as the past, is overstuffed with characters, including the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and assorted Merry Men. But the soul of the film is in the fight against taxation without representation. Tea Party protesters will eat this up, making Robin Hood the de facto movie of the year for Sarah Palin. Luckily, Scott and Crowe are too canny to allow their film to be co-opted by a political sideshow. What sticks is the image of Robin Hood as a common man driven not by superpowers but by the force of an idea.