I missed “Outlaw King” when Netflix dropped it in 2018, because I occasionally drop Netflix when I find myself running out of content to watch/review and have seen every Indonesian romance, Turkish those story and Brazilian comedy that might interest me.
The feeling of how odd this seems as a screen follow-up for Team “Hell or High Water” lingers over this write-a-big-check Netflix project, until you consider the wee surname of director and co-writer David Mackenzie. He’s of Scots descent and had the money to “Braveheart” the shyte out of the battles and historical detail as he took on Scotland’s “greatest national hero,” not the one Mel Gibson played.
But Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce? How was that ever supposed to work out? I’m a Pine fan. And his struggles with a leader who has sort of waffles and backs into going to war, has a marriage forced on him, stumbles and stumbles and eventually triumphs, are understandable. Bruce, as suggested in biographies and other film depictions, has something of the brooding brute you somehow underestimate about him.
But Pine seems off in the part. Could you cast a Chris Hemsworth, to use the “Three Chris’s” as your starting point? Bruce was a Thor-sized warrior, but can Hemsworth manage the cagey, silent type? And Chris Evans might have given us a more introspective and navel gazing version than the one Pine presents.
The moments when the Chris they cast really has to turn on the bellowing bravado are passable, at best. The fictionalized take on the man makes him less than the most inspiring leader and feels less imposing as “the finest warrior of his generation” as well.
Robert’s impulse to murder a rival nobleman who’s just threatened him, kill him in a chapel, no less, seems to come out of nowhere. The historic picture of Bruce — and the one we see in other films — suggests calculation at every turn.
Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones,” The Greatest Game Ever Played”) makes a less sociopathic King Edward I, too short to be the “Longshanks” English despot hellbent on bringing the Scots to hell at the point of a sword. He is Edward in his last years, his final great coup — the capture and execution of William “Braveheart” Wallace — leaves him spent, as indeed the old man must have been. When the junior Bruce (or “Brus,” with James Cosmo playing Robert’s father) is forced to act after the murder of Wallace, Edward plainly doesn’t have it in him to do this invade, rape and pillage Scotland thing all over again, not so soon after eight years of war.
“I am so SICK of Scotland!”
Thus we have the less competently murderous Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and his brutish lieutenant Valence, Earl of Pembroke (Sam Spruell) ambushing and ambushing Robert and his shrinking army, band and finally tiny corps of disciples into the far reaches of Scotland.
A very young and petite Florence Pugh is Elizabeth, the arranged marriage Edward imposes on the widowed Robert “to unite our two countries.” Pine is appropriately older (a ten year difference in the characters’ ages upon marriage) but there’s an awkwardness to their scenes that has more to do with the significant difference in height. Her educated pluck is played up, and Elizabeth’s suffering as the English take her hostage. But Pugh has too few scenes to make much of an impression.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the once-and-always “Kick-Ass,” seems to be the only player to be having any fun playing the only character allowed to. Howling “DOUGLASS” with every swing of his sword, he plays the scion of a clan who fights with insane zeal to recover “stolen” lands. Taylor-Johnson pretty much steals the movie thanks to that.
Director and co-writer Mackenzie gives us grand Scottish locations, castles (some digitally added to the background) and horrifically gruesome, bloody and muddy battles. Combat was at its most savage and personal in this war, and showing us Wallace, after he’s been drawn-and-quartered, is something even the sadistic Mel Gibson didn’t dare do.
But “Outlaw King,” while more photographically impressive than the better-cast (Angus MacFadyen, who also played Robert in “Braveheart,” which made him too old to play the king in that 2019 “sequel”) but also underwhelming “Robert the Bruce” biopic, leaves one with the impression that the definitive “Bruce” picture has yet to be undertaken.
Rating: R for sequences of brutal war violence, some sexuality, language and brief nudity
Cast: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stephen Dillane,
Billy Howle, James Cosmo
Credits: Directed by David Mackenzie, scripted by Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie and James McInnes. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:01