(CNN) -- The second Australian to play England's most famous outlaw, Russell Crowe might seem unlikely casting. But when you consider that in the 1930s Warner Bros. tapped James Cagney for the part -- until the star walked out in search of an improved deal -- Crowe doesn't seem like such a stretch. He's an improvement on Kevin Costner, surely?
With his graying beard and an accent that sometimes ranges a little too far towards Tyneside, Crowe is beginning to resemble his director, Ridley Scott. This is their fifth film together. With its mixture of manly adventure, populist rhetoric and a digitally enhanced historical canvas, it is evidently meant to capitalize on their biggest success, "Gladiator," (though Cate Blanchett's Marian seems to think she's doing "Thelma and Louise").
A legendary, rather than historical figure, Robin is fair game for revisionists, though audiences may be surprised at how freely Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have strayed. For a start, he's not Robin of Loxley at all, but plain Robin Longstride, a yeoman archer who returns from the Crusades bloodied but unbowed, clutching the dead King Richard's crown to his chest. He agrees to play the murdered Loxley at the request of his father (Max von Sydow) to prevent the widow, Marian, from forfeiting their estate to King John (Oscar Isaac).
This Robin Hood doesn't steal from the rich and give to the poor -- except for a shipment of seed he liberates from the Church coffers -- but Scott plunders wholesale from classic historical dramas: The opening sequence in France comes from Richard Lester's "Robin and Marian" (with Danny Huston as a fine, blustery Lionheart); the subterfuge with Marian suggests "The Return of Martin Guerre"; King John's peevish egomania reminds us of Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus in "Gladiator." With all the tub-thumping about the rights and wrongs of kings, it wouldn't be surprising if Scott has worn out his copies of "Braveheart" and "El Cid" too. The pick-n-mix approach is all very well, but sometimes you wonder if the filmmakers knew what story they wanted to tell.
Crowe's Robin is not, first and foremost, a socialist intent on redistributing wealth. Rather, he's a libertarian who believes every Englishman's home is his castle, and the King should keep his greedy hands out of it.
The movie is handsomely designed and solidly put together with a sterling supporting cast (Mark Strong is the best bad guy in the business right now) but the overly complicated plot drags and the copious action scenes often feel flat-footed.
Long in the tooth to be embarking on what turns out to be an origin story, Crowe shoots a mean arrow, but lacks the jaunty athleticism and the mischievous twinkle Errol Flynn brought to the Greenwood. Merriment is in short supply. Scott doesn't do him any favours with his penchant for shooting all the action as if the cameraman was involved in hand-to-hand combat and -- in the long, underwhelming finale -- fighting a losing battle.
Crowe's is a subdued performance in a film that could use more energy and passion -- more Cagney, if you will.
Paradoxically, though, the most effective moments are where Scott slows it right down, like the bonfire song and dance that seals Robin and Marian's attraction, and which is ripe with nostalgia for an Olde England of verdant forests and free-flowing mead. It's in touches like this that the movie suggests there's something real at stake, and it's not just going through the motions.