Outlaw King is an odd movie that strives for realism everywhere except where it matters most. From a technical perspective, you can see no expense has been spared in trying to recreate 1304 Scotland. You can practically smell the mud and the blood. But when it comes to telling a story in that setting and filling it with interesting characters, the script resorts to boring hero/villain tropes, unworthy of the history its depicting and childish in its simplicity. The devotion to accuracy on screen betrays the indifference to crafting compelling, believable characters. What we’re left with is good Scots fighting bad English, and not much else.
Rather than spanning the 20-year fight to free Scotland from England, Outlaw King picks up right as the Scots are surrendering to Edward I (Stephen Dillane). However, the Scottish lords believe that the reason their 8-year rebellion failed was a lack of leadership, and that Scottish lord Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) is the man to lead them. After some initial reluctance, Robert decides that Scotland cannot be subject to English taxation and conscription, and resolves to build an army to fight back. However, that’s easier said than done, and a majority of the story is Robert and his small band running from English forces led by Valence (Sam Spruell) and the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle).
It’s fine that Outlaw King chooses to focus on a shorter span of time and the beginning of Robert the Bruce’s reign and rebellion, but the script fails to fill that time with anything remotely interesting. All we ever really get to know about Robert in a movie that’s over two hours long is that he’s a good guy. He fights alongside his men, works with them in the trenches, drinks with them, and is kind to the local villagers. If you want to give me a superhero, that’s fine, but you better give me banter and neat visual effects rather than something that’s supposed to be aiming at realism. Pine got a great character to play in his previous collaboration with Mackenzie, Hell or High Water, but here the script doesn’t demand anything of him beyond looking good and being good.
Occasionally the movie will run into a moment that could raise some interesting inner conflict, but then Robert just doubles down and resolves to fight even harder for Scotland. When he loses people close to him, he doesn’t have doubt. When he has trouble building a coalition of fellow lords to fight for him, he doesn’t become paranoid. For all the time we spend with Robert, we never learn what makes him a good man, a good leader, or a good king.
And yet it’s almost difficult to be mad at the movie when it’s so well crafted. Mackenzie clearly had a budget to play with, and he did not waste it. At no point do you ever feel like you’re watching reused Braveheart sets and costumes. From a visual standpoint, everything feels lived-in and real, and I’m sure more than a few people are going to book their tickets to Scotland after seeing the glorious landscapes and vistas Mackenzie captures as Robert and his men ride through the countryside. The best thing I can say about Outlaw King is that it feels like going back in time as long as you ignore the paper-thin plot and characters.
Outlaw King is a movie that’s epic in scope, yet small in stature. When you reach the climactic battle, Mackenzie gives us something that makes the Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones look like a PG-13 skirmish by comparison. But the story that’s being told is criminally bland. There’s no excuse for having a villain as poor as the Prince of Wales who comes from the same line of sniveling evil princes we’ve seen a thousand times before. Yes, there are bright spots like Florence Pugh’s fierce Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert’s wife and queen, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is delightfully unhinged in battle as Robert’s lieutenant James Douglas. But these brief flickers don’t illuminate a dim narrative where something horrible will happen to Robert and in the next scene it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I don’t expect Outlaw King to be 100% or even 50% historically accurate. But I do expect it to be interesting, and time and again the movie opts for the simplistic rather than the complex.
Outlaw King will be available on Netflix on November 9th.