Outlaw King doesn’t exist because it’s a worthwhile depiction of 14th-century swordsman Robert the Bruce and his unification of Scotland to secure independence from England. It exists mainly because Netflix wanted its algorithm to return its own thing if you search “Braveheart.”
If you’re not a history buff but Robert the Bruce sounds a wee bit familiar to you, well … again, Braveheart. In Mel Gibson’s sweeping epic, he was the Scotsman who rolled with the English — and whose pops served up William Wallace to the English King Edward I. But Robert the Bruce felt really bad about it, took up arms and, in the final scene, led a charge against the English. Gibson’s Best Picture winner wasn’t the most historically accurate portrayal of Robert the Bruce, such as any notion applies to 700-year-old events. But the propulsive power of these stories is rooted in a sort of primitive, mythological propaganda anyway. Even as Outlaw King aims for something closer to the record — directed and co-written by Scotsman in David Mackenzie, eager to do right by his nation’s hero — it still embraces its own indulgences.
Unlike Braveheart, length is not among them. Mackenzie’s take hits the streaming service just past midnight Friday (and some local theaters) — 20 minutes lighter than it was at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. The original 137-minute cut went over with the audience like a hilt to the head, causing Mackenzie to pare things down himself. While Outlaw King might get to the fighting faster, its impatience with everything else is almost immediately apparent. It’s now a film in which Robert the Elder (Robert the Bruce’s dad) coughs, confesses his misgivings about his trust of Edward I to his son and dies … all within a minute of screen time. Even then, you’ll likely be thinking of Braveheart, as Robert the Elder is played here by James Cosmo, unforgettable as that film’s take-a-sticking, keep-on-ticking Campbell.
Worse yet, no amount of time and tinkering could remove Chris Pine, in what is easily the year’s most woeful bit of miscasting as Robert the Bruce. Pine ventured outside his usual charismatic Star Trek jerk-smirk parameters in his first outing with Mackenzie, 2016’s Hell or High Water. On paper, there’s no reason to think Pine couldn’t do it again. But it seems as if all of his mental energy went into nailing his brogue and his blocking. Pine otherwise comes off as the student-athlete on whom a school-play director has taken a chance only to find deep, deep regret. The only time Pine finds believable snarl is during his inevitable rouse-the-troops speech — a moment otherwise so anonymous that each of the film’s five writers probably took a pass at it.
Similarly, outside of a one-take opener — that begins with a candle resembling a castle and ends with an actual castle on fire — Mackenzie’s style seems to have been sliced away as well. The scenery is gorgeous, pro forma for productions like this. Otherwise, the copious violence comes to register only for its frequency. We barely know the names of the characters involved here, let alone care enough about their cause, and when the people Pine loves are placed in danger, his reaction seems to say “bad catering menu today.” Outlaw King’s brutality is bountiful, a veritable downpour of disembowelment, but it’s bereft of any ache or anxiety that resonates louder than clanging iron. (The sole inventive moment: A Scotsman who has tired of paying exorbitant taxes rearranging a foe’s face with a sack of coins.)
The most valuable assets of Outlaw King play on its periphery. Florence Pugh brings fire and feeling to Elizabeth de Burgh — the goddaughter of Edward I, who bequeaths Elizabeth to Robert the Bruce as a second-wife consolation prize early on for his “courage to stand up to (him) and wisdom to stand down.” Their love grows not out of obligation but patience, and Elizabeth is eventually caught in crisis of finding a cause around which to coalesce her confidence and then having it ripped from her … or so she initially thinks. Pugh endows the film with electricity, compassion and cleverness that the rest of the movie sorely needs. Then there’s Billy Howle looking like a homicidal Corky St. Clair as Edward I’s son, the Prince of Wales, who’s just lying in wait for the throne as well as to get a shot at Robert the Bruce. It’s easy to imagine more of Pugh and Howle before the chopping; there should be more of them still.
For all its hagiographic hoisting of its main guy, Robert the Bruce is both limply characterized and, under Pine’s limitations, perilously bland. There are brief notions of his struggle with brutal tactics subsuming a preference for more honorable negotiation, but neither Pine nor the pace let us see it wreak havoc on his soul. Aiming for something more primal than Braveheart but just as powerful, Outlaw King winds up merely passable. Score one for that algorithm, though.