FOR THE NEXT two weeks, a pair of brawny, woodland ogres will dominate the movies.

One is Shrek, the other is Russell Crowe, who picks up a longbow and strides through Sherwood Forest to play the title role in "Robin Hood."

He does so under the strong hand of Ridley Scott. The director is known for his visual panache, but it's his horse-whisperer ability to corral the bucking Crowe that's yielded this unusual, often fruitful partnership.

Few men dare work with Crowe more than once. But Scott, no pushover himself, has now worked with Crowe an incredible FIVE times. This includes the Oscar-winning "Gladiator," a career highlight for both men, and a movie clearly on their minds when they commandeered this project.

In fact, it's helpful to toss out pre-existing notions of the Robin Hood legend, especially on-screen (no merry men, nobody gets knocked off a log with a staff), and think of this new movie as an anglicized "Gladiator 2," a sober, impressively staged period drama and battle epic.

It should be ideal territory for both men - no contemporary actor travels back in time or wears the trappings of myth as credibly as Crowe, and few directors have Scott's ability to give wide-screen gravity to epic yarns.

Why then, does this new "Robin Hood," a labor of love, feel like such a labor?

Surely it starts with a bang. Scott shows us the English army returning from the Crusades, sacking its way across France, laying siege to a castle under the guidance of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston).

The scene is adroitly staged (Scott steals a few bits from "The Vikings") and ends unexpectedly - a way for Scott and scribe Brian Helgeland to announce that the new Robin Hood will set the old screen versions on their ear.

Which it does. Robin Hood is oft portrayed as a nobleman who becomes a commoner and redistributes the wealth of an illegitimate monarchy. Crowe's Robin is a commoner - a soldier - who impersonates a nobleman and becomes an agent of political change (he's chief lobbyist for the Magna Carta, believe it or not).

The twist gives the movie some needed lightness - Robin's lovable "father" (Max Von Sydow) accepts him, but his supposed wife (Cate Blanchett) does not, leading to some amusing interplay between Crowe and Blanchett (though not much heat).

They become critical players in a complex conspiracy by an English traitor (Mark Strong) to unseat the king, who has alienated key allies (William Hurt) and left the realm vulnerable to French invasion.

As a sort of 12th century political action thriller, "Robin Hood" is OK - in his dotage, which in England is called a "peerage," Sir Ridley has become a fine director of action.

Yet, the movie feels hamstrung throughout by its transparent effort to make it relevant. Western imperial hubris is a favorite recent theme of Scott's, and his ardent crusade against contemporary crusades continues here. Worse, though, are efforts, through Marion, to strike some meaningful feminist note.

When she shows up at the decisive battle it's meant to be inspirational, but with her goofy armor, tiny horse and "Lord of the Flies" army of teen boys, it looks, alas, like something out of Monty Python.

Produced by Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott, written by Brian Helgeland, music by Marc Streitenfeld, distributed by Universal Pictures.