Netflix's Outlaw King Review
Netflix follows up the Braveheart story with the tale of Robert the Bruce in David "Hell or High Water" Mackenzie's historical guerrilla war drama, Outlaw King.It's Scotland 1304 and, with Wallace's loss, the Scottish lords are compelled to pledge fealty to England's Edward I. When Wallace returns in pieces, however, it fuels an uprising driven by Robert the Bruce. Initially outcast, even by some of his own, for his acts of defiance, and on the run from the English armies led by Edward's son, Robert the Bruce eventually amasses something of an opposing force, taking to guerrilla warfare to strike at his opponents.
The feature unavoidably walks in the footsteps of Gibson's powerful 1995 epic Braveheart.
David Mackenzie has honed his skills on smaller but still noteworthy productions - not least Starred Up - with his most accomplished being the tremendous Hell or High Water, which saw him pair up with Chris Pine to afford the Star Trek actor one of his better roles. Reuniting here for this Netflix production, expectations are unsurprisingly somewhat high, and the feature unavoidably walks in the footsteps of Gibson's powerful 1995 epic Braveheart and thus suffers somewhat under the ensuing comparisons.
Outlaw King is a well-made, well-shot (semi-)historical epic, which tells a tale that is eminently worthy - a natural successor to the events of Braveheart, it's great to learn what happened next. Providing a rich and authentic period backdrop, muddy, dirty and suitably bloodied, it has all the trappings of what should be an unmissable Netflix movie. Unfortunately, it simply doesn't have the scale or the budget to completely escape that TV feel around the edges, taking an inordinate amount of time to get to the meat of its rebellion, and then crashing to a halt just as it's gotten started.
Chris Pine enjoys at least a very different role here, even if he seems somewhat out of his element. Committing to his accent, Pine plays Bruce small-scale to start with, never quite roaring with the same presence and power as Gibson, even when he's called upon to do precisely that, but ably supported by a bunch of familiar faces (some of whom were ironically also in Braveheart) including Tony Curran (recently in Netflix's Calibre), Callan Mulvey (Winter Soldier), the unforgettable James Cosmo and fellow Game of Thrones' stalwart Stephen Dillane, who doesn't quite embrace his Edward I antagonist role.
Florence Pugh shares some nice chemistry with Pine, but it isn't long before she's forced into being a damsel in distress - which is a shame considering where the character promisingly begins - and it's only Aaron Taylor-Johnson's (Age of Ultron) fellow rebel who feels a little out of place.
Mackenzie puts together a game cast, but his five-man team of writers - of which he was one - don't do the story any favours, muddying the waters of historical accuracy (not that you need it) in favour of a fairly familiar tale of rebels on the rise which, whilst seeking to tell the next chapter in Scotland's post-Wallace history, actually often feels like it's merely a Braveheart-lite remake.
It doesn't have the budget to escape that TV feel, taking an inordinate time to get to the meat of its rebellion, and then crashing to a halt just as it's gotten started.
The momentum slowly builds towards the epic battle that likely the whole production was centred around from the outset, seeing hundreds of muddy, bloodied bodies heaving around a swampy field, and dozens of horses felled and impaled on pikes, as axes and swords clash. It's glorious chaos, but it's still all too familiar, lacking the focus of similar efforts, and happy instead to stage the battle as has been done before. And with very little personal impact indeed. Across the entire runtime, you'll struggle to find a single death leaves you feeling like you've lost a character of some importance, or indeed that Bruce has lost (or killed) anybody of any importance, with only the distant plight of his family a vague blip on his emotional radar. With zero consequence, Outlaw falls flat when it should instead be rising to the challenge.
Oddly - particularly for a Netflix-backed production, many of which don't feel the need to worry about their runtime, or indeed about little things like editing at all - Outlaw King was reportedly trimmed by a not insignificant 20 minutes to appease preview audience reactions over the runtime (even more oddly losing some much-needed battle sequences and confrontations), and it actually needs more meat than this to be a worthy successor, instead slipping into mediocrity as merely a pale imitation of its predecessor.
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