For those of you wondering why “Braveheart” was only three hours, when the wars of Scottish independence lasted decades, there’s now two more hours of it in the form of “Outlaw King.”
Taking place in the space between William Wallace’s insurgency and the “Braveheart” coda, “Hell or High Water” director David Mackenzie’s ruddy, muddy, bloody 14th-century chronicle of the successfully rebellious campaign Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) waged against English king Edward I (Stephen Dillane) isn’t likely to replace Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning warrior cry in the pantheon of medieval war epics. Sometimes, getting there first with overlooked, then heightened, battle history has pop culture advantages.
But as Netflix-and-kill offerings go, “Outlaw King” is a respectably engaging slice of freedom-fighting bluster, if ultimately suffering from the same need to bleed that weighs down most warfare sagas these days. Mackenzie shaved 20 minutes or so after its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, but there’s still no getting around the fact that what starts as a human drama of occupation, unease, brotherhood, and political fracturing invariably must give way to the mechanics of lengthy, loud, and splatter-enhanced combat.
Kudos to the production’s war department, then, for the clanging, gory realism, but when cinematic representations of up-close skirmishing have barely improved since Orson Welles redefined the chaos of war in “Chimes at Midnight,” it’s disheartening to see a movie like “Outlaw King” think of its climax only in terms of battlefield butchery.
Up until then, McKenzie and co-writers Bash Doran (“Boardwalk Empire”) and James MacInnes fashion a mostly convincing tale of how the flame of independence stays lit inside a compromised people. The film starts in 1306 in the immediate aftermath of battered Scotland’s acquiescence to the reign of England. Forced fealty doesn’t preclude King Edward, however, from trying to solidify ties with his former antagonists, bestowing his goddaughter Elizabeth (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”) as a new wife for vanquished, widowed noble Robert, whom he begrudgingly respects.
Part of a larger tent ceremony whereby defeated Scottish noblemen must kneel before Edward, this scene kicks off a seriously long, character-introducing single-take opening shot that segues into Robert sword-sparring with the hotheaded, buffoonish Prince of Wales (Billy Howle, “The Seagull”) and ends with a display of England’s war prowess in the way of a massive catapult launching a fire rock at a faraway castle just for kicks.
Until Mackenzie flexes his battle-directing muscles much later, that shot is the only virtuosic thing about “Outlaw King,” which afterward is content to methodically track Robert’s shift from brooding acceptance as a conquered subject to newly energized rebel sovereign with unhurried precision. While Robert’s initially platonic, respectful relationship with arranged spouse Elizabeth evolves into support for his truce-breaking cause (Pugh is appealingly strong-willed in the role), his bid to conscript war-weary, infighting Scottish nobles — or self-serving ones like John Comyn (Callan Mulvey, “Power”) — into joining him and fiercely committed comrade Angus (Tony Curran) becomes a shakier endeavor. Rejection and betrayal follow his ragtag band as Edward girds his massive army for violent retribution across Scotland, leading to a decisive showdown at Loudon Hill that pits a smaller force’s tactical ingenuity against sheer might.
All the while, Pine, who grasps leading-man technique as well as anyone these days, uses the Steve McQueen playbook of low-boil masculinity flecked with charm and soulfulness (and brief, no-frills nudity) to make his underdog king seem both of his time and ours. It’s very much the anti-Gibson version of medieval heroism — awkwardness becomes Pine — and it’s refreshing in its unadorned, feeling-around-for-something appeal. Plus it allows for the bearded beasts around him to howl and growl to their heart’s content.
Dillane, meanwhile, cribs entertainingly from his “Game of Thrones” approach to contemptuous rulers, making one wish there were an all-Edward movie he could sink his teeth into. There will come a time, if it’s not already here, when Dillane’s appearance in a project will register “scowling British foil” faster than his considerable acting skills can portray it. But until then, enjoy what he can do exhaling a hilariously chilling line like “I am so sick of Scotland” with equal parts meta, alpha and ho-hum.
Visually, the Scottish landscape’s misty beaches, purple heather and majestic glens do their part under cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s no-nonsense approach to period realism, as do the historical castles that give gritty oomph to the location work. Apart from the bloody hostilities, “Outlaw King” isn’t a bad advertisement for touring the country’s natural beauty. Could it stir Scotland to reject UK rule again after voting no on independence only four years ago in a nationwide referendum?