Outlaw King cribs elements from every other medieval epic you’ve seen before — and that pandering is probably the point. It’s safe to assume that Netflix is backing this film in the first place because of the successes of Starz’s Outlander and HBO’s Game of Thrones; their algorithm must’ve crunched some numbers, cross-referenced demographic information, and — voila. What’s less obvious is why David Mackenzie would choose to helm this project. The mostly competent journeyman director has a couple of solid films under his belt (Young Adam and Hell and High Water) and a couple interesting misfires (Asylum, Spread), but nothing about Outlaw King suggests that Mackenzie has the passion for this subject nor the skill set for this kind of massively scaled medieval spectacle. The final, intentionally epic battle scene gets a CGI-enhanced establishing shot that shows a legion of oncoming enemy forces — but then the entire battle takes place in close-up, with a few extras and some horses.
Outlaw King is one of those movies that’s heavy on plot but light on story progression. After quashing William Wallace’s rebellion, King Edward has consolidated his grip on Scotland, and a bunch of Scottish lords, including Chris Pine’s Robert the Bruce, have pledged their allegiance to him. Because this movie needs to move things along (and because history has already dictated the ending), the Bruce decides to rebel yet again, and a chunk of time is devoted to his arguing with other lords and the man’s own brothers. There are eventually some betrayals and some setbacks, and then the — ahem — Outlaw King decides to start fighting dirty and rallies his troops to a decisive victory over the English army.
Nothing about Outlaw King suggests that Mackenzie has the passion for this subject nor the skill set for this kind of massively scaled medieval spectacle.
Virtually everything in this movie is big, broad rhetorical gestures without the character work to justify them. The Bruce’s reluctant wife, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), is given to him as a prize of sorts for fealty to King Edward. She is obviously unhappy about this — at least until she decides that the Bruce is actually a pretty good guy and they sleep together. When Elizabeth refuses to renounce Bruce to Edward, she spends the last third of the movie suspended in a cage. That’s not a character arc — just a series of incidents that happen. The same goes for the Bruce’s brothers, who keep getting killed but we only know that they’re his brothers being killed because the Bruce yells, ‘Brother, no!’ or something to that effect; none are fleshed-out characters, and it means nothing when they die. Even Aaron Taylor Johnson, who gets second billing here after Pine, is only onscreen for maybe fifteen minutes — and his character, James Douglas, is important to the film basically just because of the inclusion of one of those ‘what happened to him after the movie ends’ title cards before the end credits. What Outlaw King really most resembles isn’t its contemporaries on TV at all, but actually Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, an almost 25 year old movie to which Mackenzie’s film plays as basically an unofficial sequel. Netflix reportedly spent $90 million on this thing, and that kind of money should have bought a better screenplay.
You can currently stream David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King on Netflix.