Chaaaarge! New blood ‘n’ thunder epic Outlaw King hit Netflix Friday, and it’s got everything you’d want from a sword-waving historical action movie: beards, attackers thwacking at each other with axes, gorgeous scenery, beards, political intrigue, and more beards. Starring Star Trek star Chris Pine and set in 14th-century Scotland, this medieval melee proves you can take our Netflix subscription, but you’ll never take our freedom.
Damn — nearly made it through a whole paragraph without mentioning Braveheart. Outlaw King picks up where Mel Gibson’s multi-Oscar-winning 1995 epic left off, as Scottish nobleman Robert the Bruce battles to win independence from England. A minor character in Braveheart, Robert takes centre stage in Outlaw King, played by Pine with a Scots burr and yes, a beard.
Outlaw King opens promisingly, with an audaciously lengthy continuous single shot setting up Robert’s world. Opening in a tent where England’s ruthless King Edward lays down the law to his defeated Scots enemies, the camera follows Pine out into watery daylight for a brisk sword fight before ending with a spectacular display of medieval might. It’s a bravura beginning from director David Mackenzie that establishes what we’re in for: political intrigue, clanging swords, mud, and seriously epic beards.
You can’t beat battalions of brooding warriors who growl at each other about honour before charging into broadsword battles against a backdrop of moody grey skies. Scotland is shown off in all its crisp beauty: rippling grass, shimmering lakes and windswept hillsides, with Celtic song echoing across pastoral scenes. Robert and his mates parade around at rowdy banquets, dressed in sumptuous curtains and lit by amber candlelight, before coronations and battles fill the width of the screen with pageantry and warfare. You really see where your Netflix fee goes as armies of extras bow and scrape and then charge across every shot.
Behind the scenes there’s the fascinating politics of church and state, as squabbling nobles and chattering clerics fume and feud. Everyone is in hock to someone, the nobles kicking wealth up to the king, the soldiers relishing their freedom to punch downward, and the peasants getting the short end of the stick from just about everybody. Matters of politics and religion intrude everywhere, even the bedroom on Robert’s wedding night.
And there’s mud literally everywhere — half of the film consists of bearded blokes bumping into each other on dirt tracks.
Outlaw King certainly plugs the gap before Game of Thrones returns. Author George RR Martin was inspired by real-life medieval history for his intrigue-filled tales of throne-ownage, and Outlaw King’s revisiting of real history often feels starkly like Game of Thrones with just the white people. Historians might find it about as historically accurate, too.
Unfortunately Pine’s version of the Bruce isn’t a patch on any of the deliciously nuanced characters from Game of Thrones. A soft-spoken, humble chap dedicated to decidedly modern concepts like respecting the people and respecting women, he’s pretty vanilla. That is, up to the moment when he launches his campaign for the throne with an act of close-up violence so brutal it drew gasps from the audience at my screening. That flash of savagery gives the film a much-needed frisson, suggesting an unexpectedly steely, ruthlessly ambitious side to the apparently noble hero.
Sadly, the film doesn’t really follow through on exploring the hubris or ambition within the man who would be king. Instead, Pine’s romantic hero remains the soft-focus good guy. At his side, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is much more fun as a nobleman looking to win back his title through extreme violence, while Florence Pugh gives a dignified turn as Robert’s bride, Elizabeth de Burgh.
On the other side, the bad guys are as bad as they can be. From the king on down, the English are thoroughgoing bastards one and all. Sneering soldiers pillage villages, treacherous poshos spring ambushes, and cocky cavalrymen thunder down on plucky Scots foot soldiers. As the supercilious Prince of Wales, Billy Howle goes full Joffrey, constantly looking like he’s about to cry and stab someone at the same time.
Ultimately, it’s fitting that Outlaw King is on Netflix, because it seems to have been assembled by an algorithm. Specifically, the algorithm that knows you watched Braveheart. If you liked Hollywood star Mel Gibson growling a vaguely Scots burr, you’ll like Hollywood star Chris Pine doing the same. If you liked veteran British actor Patrick McGoohan as the flinty Edward I, you’ll like veteran British actor Steven Dillane wearing the crown. If you liked doughty Scots elder statesman James Cosmo as William Wallace’s chum, you’ll like doughty Scots elder statesman James Cosmo as Robert the Bruce’s dad. If you liked Mel’s bum, you’ll like Chris’ peen.
As the final battle degenerates into a chaotic melee bogged down in Scottish mud, it’s not just the soldiers who find it hard going. Picturesque but undemanding, Outlaw King struggles to win independence from historical epics that came before.
Outlaw King streams on Netflix from Friday 9 November.
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