David McKenzie reunites with Chris Pine for a Braveheart-esque historical epic that plays out more like a filler episode of Game of Thrones.
Before you read any further, know this: yes, Chris Pine does hang dong in Outlaw King. For a certain subset of the population, this may be enough to justify the price of admission (which, for many, is the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription). However, fair warning that the movie that surrounds it – a muddy, murky historical war drama as rushed as it is bloody – is a pretty dodgy affair that provides only marginally visceral thrills otherwise.
Co-written and directed by David McKenzie (Hell or High Water), Outlaw King (sorry, Outlaw/King; the title is going by Nip/Tuck rules) is a Braveheart sequel of sorts. In 12th century Scotland, William Wallace’s rebellion has been quashed and Scottish lords must now pledge fealty to King Edward II (Stephen Dillane, Game of Thrones), the young Robert the Bruce (Pine) among them. After Robert’s father dies (James Cosmo, also Game of Thrones) dies, Robert takes command of the kingdom, and quickly drums up talk of revolution once more after pieces of Wallace’s dismembered body are displayed throughout the country. With the aid of his well-read wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh, Malevolent) and the vengeful James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass 2, Nocturnal Animals), Robert seeks to liberate Scotland against the English scourge.
In concept, it’s nice to see Pine and McKenzie reunite – Hell or High Water was a scintillating neo-Western that explored everything from the modern economic crisis to the changing norms of masculinity. It’s too bad, then, that Outlaw King plays out like a filler episode of Game of Thrones; between its Battle of the Bastards-like treatment of medieval combat and basically cribbing half its cast from the acclaimed HBO show, the comparisons are inevitable. Between GoT and Braveheart, there’s little new Outlaw King can bring to the table, whether in politics or action. Scenes alternate between mumbled discussions of battle strategy to the bloody, shaky results, which admittedly thrill in the moment but get samey over the film’s two hours. McKenzie still has a decent grip on action – novel moments like someone using chainmail as a weapon or knocking someone off a horse to mount it themselves occasionally excite – but it all feels rote, boilerplate. There’s little intellectually to chew on, despite the film’s sense of history and scope.
Pine’s performance doesn’t help, either; as Robert, much of his time is spent in stoic Captain Kirk mode, Pine’s natural charisma handicapped by having to work his mouth around a dodgy Scottish accent. Half the time, he just drops it to sell the moment, and I wish more than anything he hadn’t taken the chance. While he makes a capable lead, and his all-too-modern scenes with the incredibly liberated Elizabeth (she can read, you know! And she can give orders just as well as the men!) have some decent chemistry, his supporting cast is lost in a sea of indistinguishable beards and tartans. Outlaw King’s brutal world dooms many of Robert’s closest friends and family to terrible fates – disembowelings, impalings – but it’s tough to remember who they were and how they related to Robert by the time their sad demise arrives. Tony Curran’s blustering Angus MacDonald and Taylor-Johnson’s wild-eyed Douglas make impressions in a few exciting scenes (a late-film sequence effectively lets Taylor-Johnson take the lead, and it’s great stuff), but otherwise it’s hard to care about who’s who.
McKenzie likes to dabble in amoral worlds, and it’s here that Outlaw King occasionally shines. Robert is a just and wise king, but he just as easily puts down a Scottish rival who refuses his offer of alliance and threatens to turn him in to King Edward. Billy Howle (On Chesil Beach) makes for a petulant, unhinged Prince Edward, but his anger is clearly informed by the pressures placed on him by his father. Even King Edward gets a moment of weakness, recognizing the tragedy that comes from a warrior dying of old age. When the film takes some time to let its audience see the humanity behind its stock baddies, and complicate its good guys, Outlaw King gets more interesting.
Outlaw King was infamously greeted with a lukewarm reception at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, leading to the dramatic cutting of about twenty minutes of footage for its Netflix release. The results, sad to say, don’t seem to make the film less draggy and erratic; even at a clean two hours, Outlaw King falls into repetitive patterns and chugs along at a clunky pace. It has a rough time cutting into and out of certain sequences, flipping away from a scenario just as soon as we’ve gotten used to it. Outlaw King’s pace can feel frenetic at times, as if you can see the seams where supporting characters were cut out, or sequences shortened. (At least they blissfully left in the moment where Robert bathes in a pond, and from afar we can see Chris’s Captain’s Log.)
Despite its best intentions to offer a pulpy historical epic, Outlaw King doesn’t dig enough into its politics or its gore to provide more than the most immediate thrills. The action is well-staged and the cinematography nails the muddy look of the period, but its straightforward good vs. evil script feels disappointingly shallow, and likely takes more than a few liberties with how ‘woke’ these historical figures were (Robert is a suspiciously feminist dude for 12th-century Scotland). And please, don’t ever make Chris Pine do another accent again. Feel free to keep his pants off, though.
Outlaw King rides its way through the Scottish highlands to Netflix screens Friday, November 9th.