For just a little while, before it bottoms out with scenes of indistinguishable men milling about Highland mud pits, hacking and “Arrggghhh”ing at each other, David Mackenzie’s dreary, draining Outlaw King pulses with promise, bringing to its 14th century setting some of the swaggering vitality of Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. It opens in the regal tent of England’s King Edward, who dresses down the lairds of Scotland he has recently defeated. One lord scowls with even more surliness than the rest: Chris Pine’s Robert the Bruce, a Scot who will, eventually, declare himself king of his country and wage guerrilla war against Edward. The camera stalks and circles the men, tracking their humiliation but also emphasizing the intimate smallness of their world. Even with all those armed guards around, anyone’s whiskers could tangle up against anyone else’s. Then, in one long unbroken shot, the camera follows Robert the Bruce out into the gray British day, where he is immediately challenged to a duel by Edward’s snarling pageboyed princeling (Billy Howle). Pine makes a swashbuckler’s dance of it.
The mood is playful, even exhilarating, historical drama rendered with electric pulp vigor. Also enticing: scenes of Robert’s uncertain betrothal to the whip-smart young Elizabeth (a mostly wasted Florence Pugh), a few glimpses of plainchant religious ceremonies and the Highland vistas and lochs. But soon that elan lets up and the movie gets down to the dully serious business of Scot and Englishman gutting each other. It becomes a slog, lacking character or context, just beardo vs. beardo in the island’s bog pits.
David MackenzieChris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Tony CurranMark Bomback, Bathsheba DoranNetflix