Outlaw King movie review: Netflix’s infamous Chris Pine ding dong movie is a slog
Director - David Mackenzie
Cast - Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh
Rating - 3/5
Director David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King opens with an unbroken, eight-minute shot in which the camera performs pirouettes around actors through moments of drama, intrigue, violence and jaw-dropping action. Politics are discussed, duels initiated and flagons of ale consumed. In a way, these eight minutes could be seen as a condensed version of the film to follow - both a tease and a warning.
Outlaw King, perhaps one of the most expensive films to open with that now iconic Netflix ‘ba-dumm’, is an unevenly told story. In his insistence to mature with the times - and perhaps to distance his movie from Mel Gibson’s very old-fashioned Braveheart, a film set around the same time in Scottish history - Mackenzie has sacrificed whatever warmth it was possible for his film to have. It hangs, like so many poor souls in Outlaw King, drawn and quartered in a public square, there for future filmmakers to observe with stoic respect, so that they don’t end up making the same mistakes.
Watch the Outlaw King trailer here
Chris Pine stars as Robert Bruce, son of Robert Bruce, son of Robert Bruce, son of Isabella Huntingdon, daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, son of Henry, Earl of Huntingdon, son of David, King of Scots. Quite the mouthful, expertly delivered by the actor Kim Allan during his coronation scene. And it is with solemnity such as this that the film conducts itself throughout its two-hour length.
Curiously, though, the cut that has been released to us isn’t the same as the one screened at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago. After having locked the film only 48 hours before it was scheduled to open the prestigious festival, Mackenzie, to his horror, realised during the screening - in the presence of his cast and 2000 others - that Outlaw King wasn’t working. Following lukewarm reviews after the TIFF premiere, he made the decision to jump back into the editing room and continue working on the film. Twenty minutes were axed by Mackenzie - this includes a random encounter between Robert and William Wallace, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart character - with the same ruthless brutality that defines his film.
And this muscular editing style takes a while getting used to. Transitions are harsh and mechanical, sometimes jarringly so. A tender lovemaking scene could abruptly cut to a lavish aerial shot of men riding horses across the hillside, or of someone having their innards gouged out. Outlaw King is a film caught between the temptation to revel in the pomp and pageantry of the genre, and the responsibility to deliver to the audience a more realistic take on it.
Mackenzie, whose filmography is even more diverse than that of Ang Lee - he’s made a science-fiction film, a prison drama, a neo-Western and now a historical epic - is aided in this unique approach by his legendary director of photography, Barry Ackroyd. Ackroyd began his career as a frequent collaborator of Ken Loach, and then shot four films - including the latest Jason Bourne - for Paul Greengrass. His style - Ackroyd loves long lenses, which means that even in close-ups, the cast doesn’t have the distraction of having a camera shoved in their faces - is the single biggest reason that Greengrass, and now Katheryn Bigelow and Adam McKay, have developed one of their own.
This realism is vital to the muddy griminess of Outlaw King’s battle scenes. They’re slick; not with Hollywood gloss, but with blood and guts. In contrast, the character moments - including that grand coronation scene that we discussed earlier - are almost too stylistically lit. This is a heightened reality - it’s of our world, but it might as well be fantasy.
But like his film’s tone, Mackenzie’s politics are just as confusing. There are, of course, parallels to be drawn between the First War of Scottish Independence - Robert the Bruce led the country to freedom in the 1300s - and the Scottish Independence Referendum - the most recent of which happened in 2014 - and even Brexit. But is making a film that deifies such a radical nationalist a wise thing to do in this day and age? Who knows? But to his credit, Mackenzie mostly downplays this aspect of the story - Pine delivers only one rousing speech, and even that is more of a rallying cry than a politically motivated call to arms.
Speaking of Pine, he’s reliably strong in the central role, overshadowing most other cast members, despite the script forcing him to rely heavily on smouldering looks and sparse dialogue delivered in an iffy accent. He’s an unusual choice for the role - a more traditional one would have been Gerard Butler, what with him being Scottish and all, and having had experience playing militaristic monarchs - but Outlaw King is an unusual film.
One thing’s for sure, though, and that is Florence Pugh’s future as a movie star. Unless something terrible happens - an invasion, a war, perhaps distraction - she will be the next big thing. The screenplay does her no favours either - her character, Elizabeth de Burgh, spends most of the movie singing, or incarcerated - but she’s just as magnificent here as she was in her breakout film, Lady Macbeth.
There is so much to admire in Outlaw King - in many ways it is the antithesis of traditional historical epics, much like what Michael Mann’s Public Enemies was to gangster dramas. But you can’t help but feel that it could have been so much more - allegorically, thematically, and emotionally.