For a Netflix film where Chris Pine has a Scottish accent, Outlaw King is better than it has any right to be.
Given a blank check by the streaming service following his surprise hit and Oscar nominee Hell or High Water, the Scottish David Mackenzie co-writes and directs this epic which is essentially a sequel to Braveheart. Set in the 14th century, Pine stars as Robert the Bruce, a Scottish noble forced to surrender to Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane) who has seized power over the country.
However, when heroic Scottish independence fighter William Wallace (played famously by Mel Gibson in 1995) is executed, Robert the Bruce starts planning a revolt. Backing him is his English wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), as well as Sir James Douglas (a scene-stealing, feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a fellow noble whose family’s land has been seized.
With a budget of $120 million dollars, Outlaw King is perhaps the best looking Netflix film to date. It begins with a bravura-eight minute long take. During the scene, we see Robert pledging loyalty to Edward I, dueling by sword with the king’s snivelling, psychotic son Edward II (Billy Howle) and witnessing a castle being destroyed via catapult. Not only visually flashy, it gets an entire movie’s worth of complex exposition across to viewers in a clear, exciting way.
While proceedings never get more ambitious technically, Mackenzie does present major scenes – such as Robert and Elizabeth’s wedding – as if they are gorgeous tableau paintings. Meanwhile, his action sequences are solid, juxtaposing sweeping aerial shots of hordes fighting each other, with the intimate, viscerally bloody sword duels on the ground. The viewer always knows where everyone is in relation to each other.
Premiering unfinished at TIFF earlier this year, the film at the time received negative reviews over its bloated 140-minute running time. This led the director to return to the editing room, trimming his movie to under two hours. The result was successful as Outlaw King never lets up in pace, constantly moving at a steady clip. While there are moments where minor characters’ deaths fall flat because the audience has not spent enough time with them, these are preferable over the languorous stretches that can plague historical epics.
That said, something is missing from Outlaw King to make it a classic. For all it’s guerilla warfare and executions, it’s oddly well-behaved. The Scottish countryside is presented as sunny and idyllic. However, one wants it to be more brutal and damp akin to the gothic, almost comic-book-esque take on famine Ireland in Black 47 . Meanwhile, the movie lacks the mania or iconic moments of Gibson’s Braveheart, something necessary for such a crazy, true-life David and Goliath story.
Instead, Outlaw King more closely resembles The Patriot. It’s very watchable with a strong supporting cast. Tony Curran (so great in this year’s Calibre) stands out as Robert’s gruff right hand man Angus Macdonald. However, very little sticks with viewers aside from the shock of Chris Pine’s surprisingly great subdued turn as the central character. Nailing the accent and imbuing Robert with a quiet, stoic sensitivity, Outlaw King cements him as maybe Hollywood’s finest Chris.