'Robin Hood'

Not so very merry.

But that doesn't mean "Robin Hood" isn't worth seeing -- provided you're up for a hero who's more Gladiator (in the) Hood than the legendary Bandit of Sherwood Forest we've come to know and love through a century of cinematic derring-do.

The "Gladiator" reference is far from random, of course -- because this "Robin Hood" represents a reunion for that Oscar-winning 2000 epic's star and director, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott.

And while it's unlikely "Robin Hood" will strike the same kind of Oscar gold, their latest collaboration turns out to be a refreshingly straightforward origin tale, albeit one that doesn't completely scale the heights to which it (and they) aspire.

It's absorbing, yet not quite gripping. Sweeping, yet not quite stirring.

And while some of us appreciate a summer movie with more than computer-generated mayhem on its mind (to say nothing of a summer movie with any kind of mind at all), audiences who prefer a rock-'em, sock-'em cinema aesthetic will not gravitate to this "Robin Hood."

Set at the turn of the 13th century, the movie opens as English monarch Richard the Lionheart (blustery Danny Huston) and his forces head home from the Third Crusade, plundering their way through France.

Alas, Richard and his right-hand knight, Robert Loxley (the dignified Douglas Hodge), perish in an ambush at the hands of the double-dealing Sir Godfrey ("Sherlock Holmes' " Mark Strong, returning to bad-guy duty).

Enter expert archer Robin Longstride (Crowe, back in fighting trim) and his boon companions Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Little John (Kevin Durand), who journey to London to return Richard's crown -- greedily claimed by Richard's bratty little brother, John (the deliciously slimy Oscar Isaac).

John's only too happy to take a break from wenching and try his hand at divine-right despotism, much to the chagrin of his formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (flinty Eileen Atkins, in the role Katharine Hepburn owned in "The Lion in Winter"), and court adviser William Marshal (William Hurt).

As for Robin, he's off to Nottingham, where he's promised to return Loxley's sword to the noble knight's aging father (Max Von Sydow), who immediately embraces Robin as a substitute son.

That's more than we can say for Sir Robert's widow, Marian (the dependably feisty Cate Blanchett), who agrees to go along with the ruse -- up to a point. After all, she barely knew her husband when he decamped for the Holy Land with Richard and his fellow crusaders.

Besides, this Robin Longstride fellow has a definite way about him, as he demonstrates when King John's despotism -- and an impending French invasion -- threaten England's very existence.

Good thing Robin's there to lead the defenders, demonstrating that scheming aristocrats are no match for a natural leader able to show yeomen and nobles alike what it really means to be a hero.

This "Robin Hood's" screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, is an adaptation ace, as his Oscar for "L.A. Confidential" attests. This time, however, Helgeland sidesteps almost every legendary Robin Hood element. (At least he's more attentive to historical detail than he was in "A Knight's Tale.")

In the process, he injects some zesty dialogue and welcome bits of humor. But he also (over)stuffs the tale with so much political intrigue -- and so much day-in-the-life detail -- that there's barely any room for character development.

Fortunately, director Ridley Scott's on the job, lending his old-pro expertise to the proceedings. Although stately, Scott's pacing neither lags nor drags, and his flair for large-scale pageantry makes "Robin Hood" a rare example of an action workout that's both rousing and serious. It's no "Gladiator," but it'll do.

And while there's not much depth to Helgeland's characterizations, many of Scott's able players manage to create much-needed dimension, from Mark Addy's impish Friar Tuck to Matthew Macfadyen's sneeringly self-important Sheriff of Nottingham. (A pity he doesn't get more screen time, because he's a lot more fun than Strong's malevolent Godfrey.) And, fittingly, Blanchett's forceful Marian also suggests the tenderness beneath her iron-maiden exterior.

Ultimately, however, the success (or failure) of any "Robin Hood" rests on the shoulders of its title character. And Crowe proves a stalwart freedom fighter, hearty if not overwhelmingly heartfelt.

That makes him a definite departure from the impudent, irreverent, irrepressible -- and utterly irresistible -- rogues who swashbuckled their way through Sherwood Forest, thanks to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.

This "Robin Hood" has vastly different attributes.

But something tells me that, if Robin Hood's first cinematic adventure had resembled this one, he wouldn't be as legendary a movie hero as he is a folk hero.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.