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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

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

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

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.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism