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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

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 can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

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.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.