January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

Ian McKellen, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr.

Every once in a while they try to sneak a great movie past us. Don’t let them. This latest production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of cynicism and perfidy is not only engrossing but spectacularly entertaining. Even the decision to push the play ahead some 450 years into the 1930s has little effect, other than to allow for the presence of tanks and machine guns—with the Bard’s text of a power struggle fueled not by politics but by ambition thankfully left almost untouched.

As Richard, who in his lust for the crown has even his own brothers murdered, McKellen is captivating, suggesting the nasty wit and insidious resourcefulness behind the man’s brutish facade. Broadbent, who looks discomfittingly like Lyndon Johnson, is superb as the Duke of Buckingham, the archcynic nobleman who is seduced by Richard’s empty promises. And Bening holds her own as a bitter, widowed Queen Elizabeth. The only false note comes from the flamboyantly callow Downey (see review below) as her foppish brother. Never has Shakespeare sounded so much like a soup-can label read by Pauly Shore.

Were Oliver Stone more imaginative, he would have found a way to superimpose his Nixon on Shakespeare’s Richard. The original Tricky Dick, though, stands on his feet only too well. (R)

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