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OUTLAW KING (2018) review

November 14, 2018

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written by: James MacInnes, Bathsheba Doran, David Harrower, Mark Bomback and David Mackenzie
produced by: Gillian Berrie
directed by: David Mackenzie
rated: R (for sequences of brutal war violence, some sexuality, language and brief nudity)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: November 9, 2018 (Netlfix)

 

This year more than ever, Netflix is going above and beyond to convince their subscribers that there’s no longer a need to walk into a movie theater, in turn claiming themselves as a studio to contend with from the comfort of your own couch. “Outlaw King” is one of the many original films that the streaming giant is distributing and backing heavily, coming off it’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. The historical epic reunites actor Chris Pine with his “Hell or High Water” director David Mackenzie, for a sweeping tale set in the Scottish filmmaker’s homeland. It’s an ambitious endeavor with impressive production values, picking up where Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart” left off (be that intentional or not), that doesn’t mean it’s not without some problems.

“Outlaw King” opens outside Sterling Castle in 1304, at a time when Scotland was left defeated by England after its hero William Wallace seemingly vanished, leaving the Scottish lords no choice but to agree to surrender to Edward I (Stephen Dillane) of England (known as “Longshanks”). One such lord is Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), who along with his brothers, falls in line with the decision of their father, Robert de Brus (James Cosmo), to concede to Edward. There is a sense of hesitation and reluctance as the quiet and watchful Robert sits amongst his peers, such as nobleman John Comyn III (Callan Mulvey), and witnesses the arrogance and cruelty of English authority. As a gift, Edward assigns Robert his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), to take as a wife, someone who’ll become a mother to his daughter, Marjorie (Josie O’Brien), who’s own mother had died a year ago.

Robert’s turns his attention to English taxation and forced enlistment rather than domesticity and when a piece of Wallace is put on display for all to see, he becomes motivated to do something. With the support of his fellow Scotts (albeit some reluctant), Robert leads the charge against Edward I and is crowned King of Scots along the way.  However, Robert and his ragtag crew, consisting of the likes of James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran) at his side, are outnumbered at every turn and pursued by the likes of Aymer de Valence (Sam Spruell) and Edward’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and it becomes quite clear that he’ll have to approach each David vs. Goliath encounter in a different manner.

 

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For a movie that exudes considerable ambition and formidable scale, releasing it exclusively on Netflix, does it a disservice. I saw it on a big-screen, which appropriately presented the film’s production values in the way in which director Mackenzie no doubt intended. It’s certainly easier to appreciate Barry Ackroyd’s 8k cinematography, which immerses viewers in the grit and grime of 14th Century combat and highlights the serene landscapes with expansive aerial shots. That being said, I found myself distracted with the amount of viewers walking up and down the theater’s stairs beside me and annoyed by one person below hooting and hollering at the screen (even clapping over the muddy climactic battle of Loudoun Hill) below me, so maybe we’re better off watching this one at home, where there’s a stronger possibility of a more controlled atmosphere – just don’t view it on your phone.

That being said, watching “Outlaw King” conjures a certain amount of nostalgia for the historical epic we used to get just about every year in the 90s…at least it did for me. The locations used in Scotland and England lend themselves to a convincing depiction of the time period, while the costume details from Jane Petrie ground the film in authenticity, despite some extreme hair stylings that tend to stick out. From the film’s impressive single opening shot to the beach shore scene where Robert reunites with Elizabeth, Mackenzie has a solid grasp on delivering visceral action and offering breathtaking scenery, even if the cyclical patten of brutality can potentially wear down an audience.

I’ve heard complaints about the film’s supposed lack of feeling and how it winds up being forgettable. I’m not on board with that. If anything, the film’s feelings are a bit too earnest for its own good, but at no point did I find it forgettable. There are definitely times when I wasn’t sure what to make of some of the acting though. Pine is better than I thought he’d be, but I had my expectations set low going in since he’s known for being quite pretty and charming, which is absolutely not what this role calls for. Despite being somewhat distracting at times, Pine comes across as committed and not just because he’s willing to go full monty in a couple of scenes (much is being made of that, which is ridiculous considering less the naked female body has monopolized movies for decades now), but rather because of his obvious investment in the role. Still, there are times where I couldn’t help wondering if Pine was right for this.

 

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As for the rest of the cast, it’s fun to see veteran Scottish actor James Cosmo show up, considering he was in “Braveheart”, but there’s a trio of actors here who stand out throughout the film, yet only one of them is because is because they’re truly great. In just about every scene Taylor-Johnson is in, it feels like he’s going big in a very “acting” way and most of the time his decisions work, as he’s playing a somewhat unpredictable powder keg of a character, yet some of his choices are unintentionally funny. His character brings to mind Angus McFayden’s role in “Braveheart”, which coincidentally was none other than Robert the Bruce. At times, Howle’s Prince of Wales is your typical royal brat with daddy issues, stereotypically characterized (maybe that has to do the quintet of writers gathered) with acts of cruelty and impetuous outbursts. But during the final battle, it feels as if Howle uses every fiber of his being to portray a character who is mortified when the tables are turned on him.

It’s Florence Pugh, so great in last year’s “Lady MacBeth”, who is the true standout here. She is utterly captivating from start to finish and does a fine job at providing nuance to the headstrong and smart Elizabeth, never once making her out to be a damsel who needs rescuing. Instead, she portrays the character as someone who is confident with her feelings and deliberate in her composure. It’s just too bad she takes part in one of the most truly awkward sex scenes I’ve seen all year.

Sure, “Outlaw King” feels repetitive after a while, but that will primarily be the case for viewers who aren’t well-versed in historical epics. There will especially be a good degree of familiarity for those who’ve seen “Braveheart” multiple times (there was a time when it wasn’t fashionable to hate on Mel Gibson’s romantic and violent historical epic, just like people used to universally embrace “Forrest Gump”), but it helps if one considers that movies like this are rarely being made anymore.

There’s a Forbes article that ran in July which stated that Netflix anticipates spending billions on original series and movies this year, almost doubling the amount of money they are prepared to spend on original content. That’s quite obvious with the amount of money thrown at the graphic and vivid “Outlaw King”.

The streaming and media content giant moved full force into auteur-driven territory in 2018, backing films from Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), Jeremy Saulnier (“Hold the Dark”) and Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life”), all of which could be considered passion projects for their respective filmmakers, and all of which would have been hard to make at any other studio. So, if a deal with Netflix allows an avenue for these talented filmmakers to make films they want, I’m all for it.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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