The exploits of Robert the Bruce come to life in Netflix's latest original movie, Outlaw King, but is the retelling a worthy historical epic or does it fall flat? Come inside to check out my full review!
The long war between England and Scotland is a piece of history ripe for retelling. Featuring genuine heroes and legendary battles, it's really no wonder why it's the kind of story many love seeing put on film. The latest film from David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) recounts the early days of Robert the Bruce's guerrilla war against the King of England to reclaim his homeland.
I'm a big history buff and considering how great Hell or High Water turned out to be, I was eager to see if Outlaw King could be the next big historical epic...The end results are somewhat of a mixed bag however, mostly because it couldn't quite figure out what kind of film it wanted to be soon enough.
The film starts off with Robert and the various clans once again swearing fealty to King Edward I, supposedly bringing an end to the Scottish rebellion. For a (small) period of time there's a tenuous peace, in which Robert takes a new wife, but when William Wallace is captured and killed, Robert is spurred to action. From there he takes up the crown, becoming King of Scots and embarks on a journey unite the country and oust England...Obviously, things go FAR from planned.
After a disastrous first battle that kills nearly all of his men (ultimately resulting in the capture of his wife and daughter), Robert is forced into hiding. From there, he begins gathering new allies and wages a guerrilla war throughout the country, taking back one fort at a time. Along the way, the film shows us encounters with other historical figures and how they helped/hurt Robert's cause along the way.
The story takes us right up to the climactic battle of Loudoun Hill, which marked the turning point in the war and cemented Robert’s place in history. It’s a pretty gorgeous portrait of the time period, and features some incredible set/costume work. Outlaw King really captures the look and feel of this medieval time period, in all it’s gritty splendor.
More than that, however, the battles and action sequences are visceral and brutal, just as you’d expect them to be (and as they were historically). The level of intensity is strong and shot well, sucking you into the action and feeling winded by the end of the action sequences. Hell, the whole film opens up with a nearly 8-minute long SINGLE take scene (which moves through a campsite, has a fight, and even a massive catapult being used...It’s ridiculously impressive and shows the level of care that went into the film.
The performances from the cast go a long way towards selling those action sequences and connecting with those characters on a deeper level. While Chris Pine takes the lead role, and does an awesome job as Robert, the supporting cast are certainly no slouches and make for some fun viewing.
The story structure in Outlaw King, is designed to give you a sprawling snapshot of the time period and the various elements which contributed to this turbulent time. It's this aspect, however, hinders the film overall. While the multitude of character arcs provide a more detailed look at this period in history, very few of them actually seem to help move the film along. Instead, they feel more like distractions from the primary story being told.
One of my favorite things in the film is Aaron Taylor-Johnson's portrayal of James Douglas (Douglas the Black). He's freaking nuts in the film and makes for one of the most fun to watch characters in the film. He joins with Robert in order to reclaim the lands of his father, and this subplot finds him retake the fort in a very fun action sequence. While I loved seeing him play this character, frankly, it could have been left out of the film entirely without affecting the main story.Sadly, this is the case for just about all of the sideplots/characters in the film. While they can be fun excursions, they ultimately do little to add to the main story. That’s not even mentioning the plot threads that seemed to be completely forgotten altogether.
In this way, Outlaw King feels like it isn’t sure what kind of film it wants to be. With all the characters and side elements, it does a good job of a presenting an overall picture of the historical conflict. When it focuses on Robert the film takes a more dramatic approach to the story, emphasizing his burgeoning love for his new wife and care for his daughter, while showcasing his personal efforts to be a good man and unite the country.
These two aspects just don’t work well together. The attempt to give a broad “slice of life” look at the history takes the “oomph” out of the emotional moments throughout the film. Outlaw King tried to strike a balance, but can’t quite get there.
The result is a film that feels uneven, with flashes of brilliance mired by strange pacing. It’s not until nearly half-way through when we get to the story the film seemed intent on telling from the beginning. Once it hits that point, the film picks up significantly in all aspects, making the beginning nothing more than drawn out setup.
There are several points in the film that I couldn’t help but feel like it was a TV series squished down into a movie. Frankly, I think a series would have worked best for this story, and allow BOTH the dramatic story and historical snapshot to flourish. Trying to do it all in under two hours just doesn’t seem to work.
Obviously it’s not all bad, and there were several things I enjoyed while watching the movie. From a production standpoint, I hope other films seeking to capture this time period on film are taking notes. It’s also a great reminder that Chris Pine and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are amazing actors in just about anything they do.
When it works, it works very well; showing a level of potential it can’t quite reach. Because of that, if you’re a fan of history (or this time period), I think it’s worth a look. You may not care to revisit the film more than once, but there’s enough to keep history buffs invested.