Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Taylor, Chris Pine… One of these names is not like the others. All of them are actors respected in their own right for playing iconic characters in big screen tales of Britain’s myths and legends – at least, they all will be once Robert the Bruce epic Outlaw King arrives on Netflix tomorrow.
Thirty-eight-year-old LA native Chris Pine is an odd choice to lead David Mackenzie’s retelling of how Scotland’s favourite son led their country to victory over the English through a series of guerrilla raids and a tactical masterclass. He’s a tall, handsome, blue-eyed Californian known for being a tall, handsome and blue-eyed Californian. He’s been in command of a starship in Star Trek, he’s teamed with an Amazon princess during the Great War in Wonder Woman, and he’s been former US Marine Jack Ryan in one of many Tom Clancy adaptations. In many ways, he is the typical Hollywood leading man.
Yet the idea of him playing a grizzled medieval king exiled from his land and forced to retake the thrown rankles. Scottish director Mackenzie kept faith in his star – having worked together on neo-Western Hell or High Water – and it has paid off in droves. Pine proves to be, if not the perfect choice, then a damn good one. His action-man chops come in handy during the bloody, brutal and violent battles that unfurl in this expensively assembled 18-rated crescendo of crimson. But he also lends a softer and more gentle touch to the would-be ruler. He frequently outshines co-stars, who themselves are none too shabby. Florence Pugh brings an expected nobility to her portrayal of Robert’s second (English) wife Elizabeth but her presence alone brings out a vulnerable and more human side to her husband. It’s a much needed balance considering the excess bloodshed.
Outlaw King could have ended up a nationalist’s dream that works as a metaphor for independence; either from the UK or from the EU, take your pick. It quashes many of these quarrelsome worries fairly early on with the notion that the unseen vacated Scottish Lord William Wallace (sadly/gladly not a blue-face painted bare-arsed Mel Gibson) is merely representative of an idea, more so than a realised world. Freedom (sorry) is not something that can be taken (sorry) or granted by the English – nor anybody else – but is more a philosophy of coming together and cooperation against a common foe. It also strays far from painting the English as pantomime villains. Although no doubt many watching will be able to recall the Mitchell and Webb sketch and find themselves asking: “Are we the baddies?”
Occasionally the parts of the story that could have made the King of Scots seem a cold-blooded murderer are quickly dashed through. The explanation for the significance of the infamous tide-turning slaughter on Holy ground of John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch’s (Callan Mulvey) seems to take precedence ahead of the fact he’s been bloody stabbed to bloody death in a bloody church by a man who has, until that point, seemed quite a pleasant, honest and all-round good bloke. Perhaps it is because it does not paint Robert in a particularly good light? Or perhaps it is because the events took place from the year 1304 AD onwards and, y’know, everyone was a bit murdery back then, so no big deal? Or, perhaps it’s because the film is already kissing two-hours and there are more important things to get across in this act whilst keeping to a reasonable run time?
A strong cast backs Pine through the ambitious epic. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Tony Curran stand out amongst the “heroes” of the piece, while Billy Howle’s sadistic Edward, Prince of Wales is suitably villainous as he constantly vies for the approval of his father, Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane). The dynamic between Howle and Pine’s characters sees one forced to fight for a cause greater than himself, while the other chooses to fight for cause to earn recognition. In the end, one is undone by his own avarice. A political metaphor, if ever there was one.
In the great pantheon of cinema royalty, Pine might never break into legend status alongside O’Toole, Burton and Taylor et al. No matter what else he does, he may only ever be remembered as Captain Kirk in years to come. Outlaw King‘s destiny could end up simply being ammunition for some nerdy film buff in the distant future to pipe up during nostalgic conversations about “those old JJ Abrams movies” with “yeah, I like them, but Pine’s best movie is Outlaw King“. And that fictitious, imaginary, hypothetical nerdy film buff would be right. Mackenzie has managed to avoid the trappings of sword and sandal fantasies, nationalistic propaganda, and trite period dramas to produce a mature, boisterous epic deserving of the legend.
Outlaw King will open in select cinemas and launch globally on Netflix tomorrow (9 November 2018). Check out the trailer below and leave your thoughts in the comments section.