The 1990s were chock full of bloody historical epics fronted by very manly men. Daniel Day-Lewis led Michael Mann’s thoughtful Last of the Mohicans; Mel Gibson pulled off both 13th Century Scotland in Braveheart and the American Revolution in The Patriot; and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves won a boatload of Oscars. But as visual effects improved and audiences flocked to films like Independence Day, the historical epic genre started to fade away, and it’s been pretty much dormant for quite some time. Which makes the existence of the Netflix original film Outlaw King in and of itself noteworthy.
This particular historical epic chronicles the rise of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) in 14th century Scotland, as the renowned “King of the Scots” led an uprising against the country’s foreign ruler King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane). Versatile filmmaker and Scotland native David Mackenzie—whose talents range from modern Western (Hell or High Water) to prison drama (Starred Up)—brings this ambitious story to the big screen, and while the action is magnificently staged and Pine’s thoughtful turn as Robert the Bruce is a welcome change of pace from the testosterone-fueled stereotype from the 90s, the film itself is too shaggy to make any true earnest connections with its intended audience.
Outlaw King had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Collider’s own Matt Goldberg reviewed it. But after a mixed response from critics, Mackenzie went back into the editing room and took a whopping 20 minutes out of the film. So as I’m in the unique position of having seen the longer cut of the movie at TIFF, I wanted to take a look at this shorter cut to see if the film has been improved.
The short answer is yes. At 137 minutes, the TIFF cut was overlong and full of meandering detours. The arc of Robert the Bruce was muddied by various side quests and action scenes that, while showcasing impressive craft, only bogged the film down. My reaction to seeing the film out of TIFF was that it was an impressively crafted tale told on a grand scale, but suffered serious pacing issues and a wonky structure.
So now having seen the final cut of Outlaw King, I can confirm that this new cut is indeed superior. The character of William Wallace (who you’ll recall was portrayed by Gibson in Braveheart) has been removed entirely, as the film now cuts straight to his death, which is one of the events that spurs Robert the Bruce into action against King Edward. Also gone are a couple of lengthy chase/action sequences that, while impressive from a technical standpoint, didn’t add much of anything to the story or characters. These changes improve the overall pacing of the film and do indeed help to simplify Robert the Bruce’s arc as he goes from reluctant leader to bona fide hero.
However, while the final cut is better, the core issues of the film remain. In the longer cut of the film, Robert was an enigma. And while the streamlined narrative makes his choices clearer, we still don’t really get to a place where we understand what makes him tick or even really who he is. He’s honorable and good, but that’s about all we get, despite a solid performance from Pine. And that’s really not enough to hang your entire film on.
The characters around him are also a bit hit or miss. Billy Howle delivers a scary performance as Edward’s petulant and violent son who’s next in line for the throne, but he doesn’t really get much shading in terms of complexity. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives one of the craziest performances of the year as a traumatized lieutenant named John Douglas whose bloodthirst is matched only by his desire to scream his own name as loudly as possible while he graphically eviscerates his enemies, which at the very least adds some levity to the film—intentional or not.
I will say that Florence Pugh’s Elizabeth de Burgh, who is introduced as the arranged wife of Robert the Bruce, stands out far more in the final cut. While her relationship with Robert is still a bit of an enigma (she goes from meek stranger to ardent supporter of her husband’s criminal plans in a heartbeat), Pugh’s subtle work helps to shade the character out. With fewer “filler” scenes, her small acts of kindness make larger impacts, and she has an incredibly emotional scene in the film’s third act that she absolutely nails.
Speaking of which, Outlaw King really doesn’t start to gel until its second half, and even then it’s the third act Battle of Bannockburn that’s the standout. Working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Mackenzie handles this complicated sequence with ease, resulting in a bloody, muddy, violent, and thrilling battle sequence.
But getting to that point is, well, kind of a slog. Again, this final cut is better and certainly moves at a faster pace, and there are some genuinely compelling scenes to be found. But by and large the script—which is credited to five writers in total—has trouble finding a focus with which to pull the audience’s gaze. The narrative throughline of Robert’s rise to being the titular Outlaw King becomes clear in fits and spurts, but other times it feels as though we’re meandering about, going on detours that seem only tangentially related to the task at hand and still somehow provide little complexity or shading to the characters at hand. Some of that has been fixed with this new cut, but Outlaw King’s issues have more to do with its spine than the fat on its bones.