Outlaw King is buoyed by strong performances, by Chris Pine in particular, but David Mackenzie's swords-and-mud epic is too plodding to be exciting.
Over the last few years, Netflix has made a big play to break into realms of blockbuster movies and awards season fodder, attempting to rise above the stigma placed on their made-for-streaming content. Last year, the service debuted its first "blockbuster" with David Ayer's Bright, a movie Netflix claimed was one of its most-watched originals at the time. Now, Netflix is vying for awards season recognition with a slew of its 2018 releases (though they've had contenders - and winners - in the past), like Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Outlaw King - all of which have been playing on the film festival circuit this year to build buzz ahead of potential awards season campaigns. Outlaw King is buoyed by strong performances, by Chris Pine in particular, but David Mackenzie's swords-and-mud epic is too plodding to be exciting.
Outlaw King follows 14th century Scottish king Robert the Bruce (Pine) prior to his coronation and through to his rebellion against the English, who at the time were occupying Scotland. The film opens as Robert is pledging loyalty to the English crown, King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), but there's tension between him and the man the king wants Robert to work with to help England govern Scotland, John Comyn (Callan Mulvey). As part of Robert's agreement with the king, he'll also marry Edward's goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), which he does so after returning to his family's castle.
However, when the final Scottish rebel is drawn and quartered by English forces, and Robert sees its effect on the people, he vows to rise up and once again fight to free his country. In order to do so, Robert becomes the king of Scotland, but he commits a godless act to make sure so no one will contest his right to the crown and that prevents some of the clans from rallying to his banner. As such, though Robert means to unite Scotland against England, his actions and the preexisting animosity between clans make it so the new King of Scots has a nearly impossible feat ahead of him. And, with the Prince of Whales (Billy Howle) hunting Robert through Scotland, it makes his fight that much more difficult. But with allies like James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran), there's still a glimmer of hope that the outlaw king will be able to free the Scots from English rule.
Outlaw King sees Pine re-team with Hell or High Water director Mackenzie in the filmmaker's first project since his Academy Award-nominated 2016 movie. Mackenzie directed Outlaw King from a script he co-wrote with Bathsheba Doran, James MacInnes, Mark Bomback and David Harrower. With Mackenzie at the helm, Outlaw King takes viewers deep into the Scottish countryside - using beautiful wide-shots of sweeping landscapes and nitty-gritty closeups of muddy, swampy fields to entrench audiences in the countryside. The director makes sure that the characters always blend seamlessly into the land, creating a film as much about the country as it is about the people. With Pine leading the cast of Outlaw King, having Scotland stand out as a character in its own right is truly an impressive feat.
However, in terms of the story, there is a sense that there were too many cooks in the kitchen - what with there being five writers on the project - and the script feels like it never truly reached a final draft. Instead, it comes across as a hodge-podge of ideas that all make it into the movie. Further, because Outlaw King follows an extended period of time in Robert the Bruce's life, it maintains a breakneck pace, breezing through his wedding, a death in the family, his decision to become king, his coronation and the various battles he led that helped him secure a hold on Scotland. As a result, it takes on the tone of a movie-length montage - one that showcases snippets of Robert's life and the rebellion he leads, but is more focused on jumping to the next story beat than anything else. Perhaps this might have been helped by the 20 minutes of footage cut from Outlaw King following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, but the plodding pacing of the movie when it's just under two hours indicates it was always an issue with the script, not the film's editing.
Unfortunately, though, because of the other issues with Outlaw King, even Pine's performance as Robert the Bruce doesn't manage to fully elevate the film. The actor is serviceable as the more ruthless, bloodthirsty side of the King of Scots, but Pine is perhaps most compelling as the sweetly charming husband of Elizabeth - played by Pugh, who is criminally underserved in Outlaw King. No doubt thanks to Pine's experience in rom-coms, Pine and Pugh are quietly the most endearing aspect of the movie as their relationship develops and they fall in love. Pine is also helped by certain key supporting stars, including Taylor-Johnson who plays James Douglas, a man stripped of his family land who holds a grudge against the English, as a delightfully vengeful warrior. Altogether, Outlaw King assembles a strong cast led by Pine that attempts to bring some heart to the movie, but isn't able to completely overcome the bigger problems with the script.
Ultimately, Mackenzie's Outlaw King comes across as a pale imitation of a sweeping epic, having all the ingredients there for a compelling and exciting story, but unable to nail the execution. To be sure, Outlaw King is violent enough to be a war epic, but with men being killed left and right on the battlefield (along with their horses) throughout the film, it all begins to run together - save for one particularly gruesome death that is perhaps a little too grisly, even if it may be historically accurate. Still, violence does not an epic make, and though Outlaw King may try to substitute character development with war, it doesn't help the film's case.
Altogether, Outlaw King may be worth checking out for those intrigued by the historical premise of Mackenzie's movie or Pine's performance, but the movie falls in line with other Netflix originals. That's to say, it never quite reaches the potential promised by the talent involved, but it's serviceably entertaining for viewers at home looking to stream a movie rather than head to the theater. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case for many of Netflix's original movies, and Outlaw King does little to rise above that stigma.
Outlaw King is now available for streaming through Netflix. It is 117 minutes long and is rated R for sequences of brutal war violence, some sexuality, language and brief nudity.
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- Outlaw King (2018) release date: Nov 09, 2018