Set in early 14th-century Scotland, Outlaw King could be described as a spinoff of Braveheart, the stirring historical epic about Scottish rebel William Wallace that cleaned up at the 1996 Oscars, winning statuettes for best picture, best director (for Mel Gibson, who also starred) and best cinematography, among other prizes.
It could be described that way because the character of Wallace, who is in hiding when Outlaw King begins, makes a brief appearance in the new film, which tells the story of Wallace’s contemporary, Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine beneath a salt-and-pepper beard and an unflattering mullet.
Technically, only a part of Wallace shows up here, after he has been captured by the English and drawn and quartered for his disloyalty to the crown. It’s one arm and part of his chest, a grisly warning of more violence to come in this bloody — and bloody awful — historical epic that reunites Pine with his Hell and High Water director David Mackenzie.
This tedious slog through the highland muck should win no Oscars, only groans and raspberries. Even the much-buzzed-about glimpse of Pine, as his character emerges from a lake, doesn’t make this worth watching.
Robert picks up the mantle of rebellion against the British monarch King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and his cruel son (Billy Howle, in a ridiculous bowl haircut that makes Robert’s shag look good by comparison). Reacting to oppressive taxation, the forced conscription of young Scottish men and the imprisonment of his young bride (a fiery Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth), Robert takes up arms against England as he slowly recruits other Scottish noblemen to the cause of guerrilla warfare.
The film culminates in the 1307 Battle of Loudoun Hill, which was a turning point in the struggle for Scottish independence. In the context of Outlaw King, the overlong, overly violent and chaotic scene delivers another form of liberation: ours, from a movie that is a predictable, monotonous and badly written mess.
When, for example, the English lay waste to an outlaw stronghold, we hear an English soldier shout, in one of many lines of painfully on-the-nose dialogue, “This is what you get for supporting Robert the Bruce!”
Later, when we watch an ambush, we hear, just as unnecessarily, “It’s a trap!”
The screenplay, credited to Mackenzie, Bash Doran, James MacInnes, Mark Bomback and David Harrower, is ponderous and literal, like colour commentary from a Monday Night Football personality who’s been transferred from the Sports desk to Medieval Warfare. It’s almost refreshing when the wife of a Scottish rebel greets her husband, upon his return from the resistance, with this anachronistic-sounding greeting: “Where the [expletive] have you been?”
If nothing else, the question is good for an unexpected laugh, which is more than can be said for the rest of this otherwise emotion-free saga.
Outlaw King is now streaming on Netflix.