Skip to main content

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.


Outlaw/King arrives on Netflix with the not-quite ignominy of its reception at the Toronto Film Festival, after which the director cut 23 minutes. The picture’s still two hours though, and that's with Mackenzie's decision going in not to tell a birth-to-death yarn but rather focus on Bruce's rise to claim the throne, pretty much from around the point Wallace exited the proceedings. Being selective with what to cover in a biopic is usually a smart move, so avoiding episodic highlight reels or greatest hits moments, but Outlaw/King's nevertheless unable to escape that rote effect. 


It's a movie desperately in need of inspiration, requiring us to trudge drearily and muddily from one battle to the next (I believe Mackenzie cut a couple) as Pine martials his fighting spirit following the death of dad James Cosmo (decidedly more sympathetic than Ian Bannen in Braveheart, which Cosmo also featured in), leading his brothers and an assortment of familiar faces including Tony Curran and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a massive beard. 


Pine is… well, I usually rate the guy, but he's at best okay here. Not helping matters is that he's about as modern American looking as it gets, so even with a serviceable accent he seems out of place. But more than that, he just doesn't exude a leader of men vibe; he's fine when he's in charge of a gang of mates (Kirk), but playing a king, he's lacking. We're also rather bludgeoned with what an all-round good egg he is, sympathising with the serfs and making time for the kids (he even grieves for a dying lad on the battlefield, such is his big heartedness). It's the sort of role Costner would have drafted in Bryan Adams to give him a soundtrack for.


Then there's Mrs the Bruce, Florence Pugh, again bring a decidedly modern flavour to a period piece (see also Lady Macbeth). Very little seems to be known about Elizabeth Burgh, so I guess it's just possible Robert really was a highly respectful husband to her from the off, and that Elizabeth was a decidedly liberated lady, and that they had the kind of give-and-take relationship that might easily be mistaken for a twentieth century one, give or take the odd banishment from the room when engaging in war talk (but hubby then apologising afterwards). Really, though, it just seems like the usual revisionist nonsense Hollywood – and the BBC of late – habitually indulges. It's only a surprise Robert's most trusted advisor didn't turn out to be Morgan Freeman.


Apparently, there was more of their relationship that ended on the cutting room floor, as it isn't long before she’s been kidnapped and left in a cage hanging from a castle's walls. This by rotter Edward Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), the future Edward II, who also rather gruesomely hangs, draws and quarters Robert's brother Neil. Edward is not the mincing queen of Mad Mel’s fourteenth century Britain, but equally caricatured as a rash fool desperate to prove himself worthy of daddy, his behaviour culminating in his making a spectacle of himself at the Battle of Bannockburn Loudoun Hill. 


Edward I: The great danger of dying of natural causes is that one may be lying in one's bed chamber, thinking of all the things that remain left undone.

Daddy is played by Stephen Dillane, who adopts weariness as the king's pose over the crafty, malevolent mockery of Patrick McGoohan. I initially thought this was a mistake, but the character ends up becoming one of the more memorable ones here, even if the father-son relationship is desperately unoriginal. Howle quickly grows tiresome, which rather means there’s a big worthy antagonist hole in the picture once Edward I exits; Sam Spruell might have filled the gap, but he's underwritten.


Robert the Bruce: I know you as men, but today we are beasts!

Taylor-Johnson meanwhile, ought to be laughed off the movie for treating it so obviously in serious actor mode (so full method, there's even a shot of him whole-heartedly snotting, back in the days before tissues), but his commitment wins you over. I might have been more interested to see the adventures of James Douglas, Lord of Douglas than Brucey winning his Scotland bonus, particularly when the detour of his mission to reclaim his land is one of the more engaging parts of the picture (he and his men go on the attack in a church).


But aside from Douglas in full roar, the copious battle scenes fail to engage. Mackenzie mounts them with due conviction, but he should know that for a battle count, they have to have mini-narratives of their own, with objectives and geography the audience can understand. Otherwise, the spectacle of muddy, bloody mayhem soon gives way to lethargy. During the big one, we are treated to a particularly ridiculous moment where Bruce punches out Edward II, but that's exactly the wrong kind of memorable.


If you go over to the Wiki page for Outlaw/King, it will tell you the film cost $120m, which is a crazy amount of money for a movie that never feels very epic or even one indulging in the occasional awesome vista (The Independent cites $90m and that still seems like a huge amount). Netflix's approach to moviemaking, like Annapurna before it started belt tightening, seems to be about pissing money down the drain, throwing cash at projects that would never have a hope of making their money back if they had to rely on cinema attendance (which makes one wonder how many streaming viewers that will add up to). It's the sort of profligacy that habitually did for studios in the past, but right now they appear to be impregnable. I'd be cautiously approving if this approach was turning out great movies, but it seems to be taking the edge off the talents involved. With no pressures involved, they can deliver exactly what they want, it seems, and what they want may be rather forgettable. Outlaw/King isn't destined for an illustrious shelf life, any more than the other Scottish historical epic from 1995, Rob Roy.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.

The present will look after itself. But it’s our duty to realise the future with our imagination.

Until the End of the World (1991)
(SPOILERS) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going.