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Outlaw King
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by Jay Seaver

"Missing what it takes to be an epic for small or big screen."
3 stars

A local theater has a 70mm/widescreen festival that includes a lot of epics of the sort that "Outlaw/King" is looking to be, and though Charlton Heston seems like ridiculous casting for 75% of the ones he's in, I wonder what a Robert the Bruce picture with him in the lead would have been like, or at least one made to dazzle on a huge Cinemascope screen rather than one shot knowing that it will get 99.9% if its audience on Netflix. Maybe it had the same problems, but maybe it stands a chance of overpowering them with sheer theatricality and spectacle.

It opens in 1304; Scotland's recent rebellion has been quelled, but with no clear heir to the Scottish throne, King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane) has moved in to take control, insisting the Scottish lords pay tribute. Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) is one of them, and also soon betrothed to Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) in hopes of forging a tighter alliance. England squeezes Scotland for more than it can give, leading Robert to start to contemplate rebellion. In the way is John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), whose claim to the Scottish throne is roughly equal to Robert's own, and might improve if he betrays Robert to the king - and Robert kills him before that can happen. Even without that turn of events, Scotland is weary of war and his forces will face a much larger army led by the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a onetime friend of Robert's who has grown sadistic and merciless, flying the dragon flag to indicate that the rules of chivalry no longer apply.

Outlaw/King has all the pieces of a classic epic, with castles and tyrants and battles and reluctant but passionate romance, even if the weirdly-punctuated title sounds more self-consciously modern. Director and co-writer David Mackenzie makes a go of it here, and there are a few impressive pieces, most notable a nighttime sneak attack by English forces where the flaming arrows pop on screen and you get a sense of scale and clear purpose not always present in the others. It's Mackenzie's best action direction in a movie where the battles seem as obligatory as the moment early on where King Edwards launching a bomb at a castle because they spent three months building the trebuchet - you need clashes at certain points, but with the story being told (where the Scottish forces burn their own occupied castles to deny them to the English), it's hard to feel any sort of momentum and result from all those blobs of tarnished chainmail slashing at each other, especially when a large part of the finale is "kill the horses" (it's fortunate that there's been nice work on CGI and animatronic horses recently).

One does wonder how producing this sort of film for Netflix changes its visual character, as well - the streaming service is famously hands-off during production and all movies need to consider that their future is more likely living rooms than repertory screenings, but there are a few scenes that feel tighter than something made for the big screen might. The majestic images with the swelling music are strips across the middle of the screen rather than panoramas, and even in the handful of theaters where it plays, the result can be underwhelming. It's not an ugly film by any means - well, strike that; the violence is actually more forthrightly gory than one might expect. But though it's got a moment or two of exquisite composition, notably a slain young soldier sinking into the black and silver of his armor, it is seldom arresting.

It also follows the historical rebellion epic template without the filmmakers seeming to see the need to work a little harder. Florence Pugh certainly gives it her all - she's great as Elizabeth, the inevitable other half of an arranged marriage who falls in love with her husband and becomes loyal to his cause, and it's smart to build her character around trying to be a good stepmother; it's a great way for a modern audience to empathize with her being thrust into this existing family and power structure. Everyone else is certainly good enough, especially since a lot of the Scottish lords get to play broad while Stephen Dillane and Billy Howle get to play their respective Edwards as genuinely nasty pieces of work. It's not necessarily enough to get one interested in these guys individually, but it keeps their scenes from being boring.

Then there's Chris Pine, who certainly gives the proper regal bearing and connection to both his people and the nobles to feel like he belongs at the center of this story, but he never makes Robert the Bruce a fascinating man beyond his place in history, either by being larger-than-life or visibly conflicted. It's not truly his fault, as the script spends very little time wrestling with the murdered rival that the rest of the action hinges on, either by making Comyn 's death feel necessary or by having Robert become something greater. The he may have personal ambitions beyond just helping his country is something other characters briefly allude to, not something that is ever seriously acknowledged and made part of what drives him. This version of the man doesn't grow into greatness, but has greatness presumed.

It's hard to get past that lack of a reckoning, and while there's probably a historical argument for that and the rest of the gore and cruelty and scorched-earth military strategy - it was a violent time and place - it can't help but feel a bit like a story whose time has passed, at least without a somewhat more critical examination. Instead, "Outlaw/King" feels bland even with the occasional bit of blood and guts, neither simple nor complex enough to be a great epic.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32601&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/12/18 13:45:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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