The Pitch: SCOTLAND! 1304! ROBERT THE BRUCE, KING OF SCOTS! Aye, this is the brief, bloody tale of the First War of Scottish Independence. Outlaw King puts Chris Pine under chain mail and a semi-passable Scottish brogue as famed independence warrior Robert the Bruce. HIS LAND! HIS PEOPLE! Robert violently opposed the English occupation of Scotland. And when political ring-kissing fails, what other way to declare freedom then through a series of stylistically choreographed and grittily shot battle scenes? In conclusion, Braveheart Lite.
Boggin’ biopic: Just above so-so, but certainly not great, David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King is just okay. It’s a muddy, bloody affair. The film is uninspiring in terms of what distinguishes this history and how to re-tell it, but just guttural enough to get by at certain points. It’s a film at odds with itself.
Pine is the famed Bruce, a scorned and stoic symbol of rebellion. The less said about his Scottish accent, the better – Mackenzie’s smart enough to pitch him as a strong, soulful type, without Big Speeches and what not. He’s a man who’s had enough, and will die fighting for the rights of his sovereign nation. “Get off my land” leads to flaps, fights, and battles for two hours. Yes, there are side plots, like Robert’s forced (and luckily functioning) marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) that results in kidnapping and rescue missions. There’s Robert’s simmering feud with King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). Bonus: Robert is hounded by Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle, chewing scenery as a bratty villain), boy prince with a crappy bowl cut. Because these movies need bad guys, yes. And Bruce assembles a band of not-necessarily-merry men like Angus McDonald (Tony Curran), James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and a parade of other real Scots with individual Wikipedia pages.
Now, given the movie’s propensity for violence, maybe the richness and fidelity of the characters is a bit less relevant? Outlaw King deals in binary, simplistic storytelling. The English: bad. Scottish: good. Now fight! These stories, these people, they add up to little more than a few gags, sex scenes, jovial dinners, betrayals, and other time-wasters on the road to war. And while it’s an acceptable choice for the sake of keeping things potent, it’s also Outlaw King’s biggest flaw: there’s not much passion for the history. These lives, and history’s atrocities, are but blips in the face of bigger events. And in turn, why root for Robert when you don’t care about him all that much? It’s all about confrontations of an extreme nature.
Blood on the brae: Mackenzie does, however, let the viscera rip. And boy, does it get a rise. Not to sound like an adolescent, but the cool stuff is actually cool. Douglas, at one point, not only uses his chain mail like a blackjack, but also wraps it around his knuckles to punch harder. Cool. A montage splicing Robert’s coronation with the English ‘raising the Dragon’ as both sides head for battle is set to rumbling bass music, and culminates with young Edward holding gilded geese (really) by their necks and declaring vengeance. Cool! A giant catapult whipping fire at a castle with a calmly designed tracking shot, ironically suggesting this to be everyday stuff in the 14th century? Very cool. Even amusing. Boy stuff, perhaps, but hey, when in Scotland.
The Verdict: These uprising event films (The Patriot, Kingdom of Heaven, Rob Roy, Spartacus) are a little dime-a-dozen. They can blur together. ‘Sword-and-sandal,’ they used to be called. In the wake of Gladiator, one might call these ‘(digital) army battle scene’ movies. Outlaw King is deeply trapped in that mold. Visually, Outlaw King is about what you’d expect from this sort of biopic. Sweeping gray cinematography of the highlands. Contempt for the English that draws parallels to any political movement du jour. And of course, the blood: spewing, leaking, and sometimes just spraying. That last bit is this movie’s only shot at finding a broad audience.
Still nodding off through what sounds like a discussion in an AP European History class? Try thinking about it this way: Outlaw King is like watching prog versus metal. When it’s prog rock – folksy and wooden – it’s at its worst. Muted, draggy, earnest, with wee traces of carefully placed humor or commentary on a bygone era? It’s Moody Blues, and even a little Jethro Tull? Hardly worth putting on, unless you like your history slim and bone-dry. But at its best, it’s heavy metal, with swinging axes and church slayings and all sorts of grim goodies. Like Sabbath’s Mob Rules! (It would make a hell of an album cover, these frightful sights.) Not to condone mayhem pornography, because that’s what Netflix wants to see in their algorithms, but in its odd way, Outlaw King is a movie that is pro-fast-forward-to-the-good-parts.
Where’s It Playing?: Netflix, on November 9th. No theatrical exhibition is planned at this time.
(Note: This film was screened for critics in its current two-hour form, and not its 140-minute Toronto International Film Festival cut. Mackenzie allegedly wanted the film to run tighter after a tepid response on the festival circuit. The current version is a little stop-and-go, but one wonders. So, if you saw the longer cut and would like to swap notes, talk to me on Twitter.)