The first thing to get over in David MacKenzie’s Outlaw King is that it’s a de facto Braveheart sequel. It’ll never admit to being so officially and while director and cast alike do refer to Mel Gibson’s film there’s nothing official to say it is, except for the fact that you need to have the knowledge of the story of William Wallace before entering this film.
What the film does do is tell the story of Robert the Bruce who fought the invading English army in the First War of Scottish Independence and in particular the story of the Bruce. Indeed for the first half hour or so it strives for historical accuracy as much as possible, barring a obviously telegraphed Chekov’s gun (well, more of a swordfight) in the first reel that pays off in the end. The first half hour is also tediously slow and dull with some of the only fun being when Chris Pine’s accent (which on the whole is fine) slips into his own, or some hybrid accent with a tough of William Shatner thrown in.
Then about half an hour in, Outlaw King kicks into gear, forgets about being a historical drama and decides to become a gore-soaked exploitation film as Pine’s Bruce starts his bloody war against the English, who also become less nuanced and more like the slaughtering, raping baddies the story needs them to be because we don’t want nuance, just leering baddies who we cheer being sliced graphically in half by a sword. In fact the best way Outlaw King works are the scenes where Robert’s forces are fighting superior numbers and winning because the film isn’t about history, but telling the myth.
Outlaw King also looks astonishing on a reasonably big telly, so it’ll look even better on a cinema screen. It uses the landscape of Scotland so well that it becomes it’s own character as it supports Robert on his struggle which ends here not at Bannockburn as those aware of their history may expect, but at the battle of Louden Hill (I assume just in case there’s enough demand for a sequel) is presented here as a muddy, bloody swamp of death and the aforementioned Chekov’s Sword is brought into play.
Overall Outlaw King isn’t the film it couldn’t have been. It tries hard not to do a Braveheart, but dips liberally from that film, and when it tries to be political (at several times it’s quite clearly speaking to the audience in a 21st century post 2014 context) it doesn’t have that clarity of vision Gibson’s film did which may have been simplistic, but was also effective. What the legacy of Outlaw King may be I don’t know as it’s too early, but as an effective action/adventure/exploitation film flying the Netflix banner it’s a flawed, sometimes dreary bit of entertainment that doesn’t fly til it shrugs loose it’s chains and then it repays your faith in the film in steel and blood.