Film Review: Outlaw King

David Mackenzie’s hyper-violent story of Robert The Bruce is absorbing and features action aplenty.
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Based on historical events, Outlaw King is set in 14th-century Scotland, when the British Edward I (Stephen Dillane) becomes King of Scotland. He asks the Lords of Scotland—Robert The Bruce (Chris Pine) and John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) among them—to pledge fealty to Edward. Robert The Bruce reluctantly does, and is also challenged to a duel by Edward’s son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle). But their fight ends before it is finished; they will, of course, live to fight again as Robert The Bruce will ignite a rebellion to reclaim his country for his people. And so begins David Mackenzie’s film, a muddy, bloody “game of crowns.”

Outlaw King, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in a 146-minute version, generated considerable buzz for Pine’s full-frontal nude scene, and an indifferent response otherwise. The Netflix release, however, has since been cut down to 117 minutes—the nude scene remains—and the film plays quite well at its present length. Mackenzie introduces his characters and their motivations clearly, and the action moves along briskly. Almost too quickly, in fact; there are times when viewers may want a scene to linger. Or for there to be some stronger character development. The biggest flaw in Mackenzie’s film is that it is so focused on plot and action, there is all too little emotion, save that surge of rage for (or in) battle. (There are many scenes of men yelling and charging.)

The other emotion that does come through is Robert The Bruce’s “sentimental notion of fighting for people.” Angered at the situation in his country and warned by his dying father not to trust Edward, Robert The Bruce decides to raise an army after William Wallace (the hero of Braveheart) is killed and people are up in arms. Moreover, his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth),the goddaughter of the King, supports his decision, and counsels him on the nature of power. Her loyalty—and her honesty—endears her to him.

Robert The Bruce becomes the “Outlaw King” after he meets with his rival John Comyn in secret, hoping to band together against Edward. However, Lord Comyn refuses to cooperate in rebellion, and Robert The Bruce kills him—a risky move that gets support not only from his men, but also from the Church, who absolve him of murder. In addition, James Douglas (Aaron Taylor Johnson) pledges fealty to Robert The Bruce, as he wants his land and his name back from Edward, who has unfairly taken both. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales is raising the dragon banner, a declaration of war with no limit.

Outlaw King features plenty of chain-mail and a handful of 14th-century references, like period music, a character playing a game of knucklebone and a massive catapult, that are meant to give the story authenticity and depth. Sometimes these elements seem forced. This is an action film where a character literally throws down a gauntlet. The important thing here is honor and getting on with the fighting using swords, axes and arrows to draw as much blood in the mud as possible.

And that’s exactly happens when Robert The Bruce and his followers are ambushed by the British one night with flaming arrows in an unfair fight. Yes, Robert The Bruce can fall off his horse and come up swinging, but he soon retreats, sending Elizabeth and his daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) away, where they may each meet some possibly horrible fate—like Robert The Bruce’s brother, who is hung and drawn and quartered by Edward’s men.

Reduced to a troop of about 50 to fight “the strongest army in the world,” Robert The Bruce is not discouraged. Pine plays this unlikely hero as stoic and sensible (and with an accent that sounds like Sean Connery), but he’s minimally expressive—this is no character study. His piercing eyes may blaze with passion through his blood-covered face to communicate his ferociousness, but Pine is no Henry V with big battle speeches. He inspires his men with simple proclamations like “No more chivalry. Now, we fight like wolves!” They plan to take back castle after castle by traveling in stealth and striking without warning, or by provoking the English to come after them. These scenes are exciting and satisfying; there is nothing like rooting for the underdog—especially during an intense fighting sequence at the edge of the water where Scottish supporters of Edward hamper the efforts of Robert The Bruce’s men to cross to safety.

Outlaw King features copious impaling, throat-slitting and other bloody, graphic violence—and plenty of injuries that the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail would call “just a flesh wound.” The violence gets even more extreme in the film’s final battle scene at Loudoun Hill, where Robert The Bruce and his amassed 500 men best the Prince of Wales’ army of 3,000. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s the film’s point). But that spectacular battle is not going to sit well with animal lovers, as dozens of horses meet painful deaths at the hands of Robert The Bruce and his men, who cleverly use the muddy land they love to build lethal traps in trenches.

While Pine is fine in the title role, Florence Pugh lends strong support as Elizabeth, most notably in a scene where she is asked to annul her marriage and devote loyalty to the British. However, the Prince of Wales is largely presented as a caricature—his bowl haircut doesn’t help—and Howle seems underused; he should have been a more memorable villain.

After all the exhausting battles, one must wonder: Is it good to be the King? As a character says, “There’s a price you pay—you only win if you survive.” With Mackenzie’s efficient telling of Robert The Bruce’s story, Outlaw King comes out as a winner.