The Outlaw King picks up Scotland where Braveheart left off, and though we get more history, it arrives without the same … visceral impact.
Apologies to William Wallace, last seen meeting an unpleasant fate at the end of Mel Gibson's rousing and Oscar-winning account of the Scots rebellion — captured by the English, and drawn and quartered.
One of his appendages makes a brief appearance at the outset of The Outlaw King (in theaters and streaming on Netflix on Friday), paraded through the streets of a village as English soldiers do a kind of 13th-century end-zone dance. A bitter mob of Scots riot in protest. Among them Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), a Wallace sympathizer and potential heir to Scotland's unoccupied throne, who has made a reluctant peace with Britain's King Edward I (Stephan Dillane), but who is moved by this display of brutality to reconsider his pledge of obedience.
What follows is his attempt to muster various Scots clan leaders, dispirited by years of war and long-standing mistrust of each other, into a cohesive force capable of driving the English out of Scotland. Director David MacKenzie's movie (he paired with Pine on Hell Or High Water) is short on the politics of coalition building and long on action, and while that's a good cinematic strategy, his efforts here are undercut by the strange kind of torpor evident in the performance of Pine, a good actor who is strangely subdued in this picture.
He looks a bit lost under his gnarly beard – all hair and eyes, like a circa-1300 version of Gritty – and certainly does not register strongly as an individual capable lighting a fire of rebellion in his countrymen.
Certainly he's a less galvanizing figure than Wallace, presented by Gibson in Braveheart as a starkly defined righteous avenger, righter of wrongs, defender of the oppressed. History paints Robert the Bruce as a more enigmatic figure. There was the time, for instance, that he killed John Comyn, his unarmed rival, for power by stabbing him in a church under the pretense of parlay (accounts vary, but this is the version of history presented in Outlaw King).
Robert also blunders on the battlefield. He gets ambushed by the English on the eve of the Battle of Methven, and is almost literally caught with his pants down — at the moment of the surprise attack, he's finally getting somewhere with his wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), a sort of peace offering given to him earlier by King Edward. Robert is lustily preoccupied when the British pounce, and though this would seem to violate a time-honored adage of combat — no Saxon before a fight — Elizabeth was actually Irish, and the daughter of the Earl of Ulster.
Robert's relationship with Elizabeth is actually one of the film's better features – it is here that Pine's low-key charisma is put to its best use, and his chemistry with Pugh is useful in establishing the emotional foundation of their resilient marriage, which held together during the times of defeat, separation, and victory.
The movie is unsuccessful at locating similar energy and chemistry in the relationships between Robert and his allies and rivals, which are complex in the movie's pared-down version of history. All is sorted out at the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where the Scots defeat their enemies by luring the English into a bog that hobbles their cavalry.
Graphic slaughter ensues. The centerpiece of this sequence is Scots warrior James Douglas (Aaron Taylor Johnson), author of many fatal swipes of the sword. Screaming maniacally and covered in blood, he gives the movie its defining image. Pine, up to his chain mail in mud, just looks tired.
The Outlaw King
Directed by David MacKenzie. With Chris Pine, Stephane Dillane, Florence Pugh, and Aaron Taylor Johnson. Distributed by Netflix.
Running time: 137 minutes
Parents' guide: R (violence, language, sexual situations)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse, streaming on Netflix