Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: David Mackenzie, Bathsheba Doran, James MacInnes, Mark Bomback, David Harrower
Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, Stephen Dillane
Runtime: 121 Minutes
It’s taken a while to actually get a definitive screen adaptation of the life and story of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), the 14th-century Scottish lord who launched a guerrilla war against the larger English army in a journey to reclaim the homeland castle by castle. But Scottish born filmmaker David Mackenzie has been building up to making a full-blooded action picture for years, and seeing him knock one out of this almost quasi-Braveheart follow-up is something that was mostly worth the wait.
The main crippling hindrance to this historical epic is that it is working from a not terribly great or inventive script that’s clearly been passed between too many hands. The weakness isn’t in the story or sequence of events necessarily, there are all rather strong as far as a structure is concerned, but the dialogue can be very familiar sounding and unoriginal. “I am so sick of Scotland” bellows King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane) at one point.
It takes about as many liberties with history as expected, but if you’re really questioning whether or not the artichoke was around the British Isles in the 14th century then it’s probably not for you.
Thankfully, performances pick up a lot of the slack in that regard with an excellent cast on hand under Mackenzie’s wing. He’s a filmmaker who has proven himself capable of getting the most out of actor Chris Pine, who might sound initially off-putting on paper but in execution fits the role of the tired, emotionally drained but archly noble hero very well.
He’s surrounded by a supporting cast of familiar British faces from Tony Curran to James Cosmo. Then there’s Florence Pugh as wife Elizabeth de Burgh, who is absolutely fantastic and almost steals the show with a complex (if occasionally side-lined) role and plays it convincingly in only the way that Lady Macbeth could do.
Keeping the whole thing moving is Mackenzie as director, who maintains a texture to the chamber scenes and gruelling conditions of the Scottish Highlands, while also showing some serious chops for staging violent action scenes that focus attention even in the chaos of battle.
The opening shot goes on for 10 minutes, establishing all the major players at the site of a stunted truce as a castle is brought down by trebuchet fire, with an atmosphere and character balance so wrought with friction it's inevitable to come undone. The cinematography by Bigelow and Greengrass collaborator Barry Ackroyd is quite exemplary throughout, this is a well-dressed and handsome, masculine looking film.
It’s not all dour though, with some admittedly awesome medieval silliness, most of which comes courtesy of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas, Lord of Douglas as he screams his heart out and beats up soldiers with chainmail. With this and Nocturnal Animals, he’s really turning out to be a much more compelling supporting character actor than he is as a lead.
Outlaw King isn’t a great film, and a step down after the astonishing Hell or High Water for Mackenzie, but its workable in the kind of way a film like this might have been made nearly two decades ago and succeeds and falls short on those merits.