A big, bloody mud-and-honor epic, Outlaw King hardly feels like it was designed or destined for a small screen. But in this era of Netflix uber alles, it will premiere there in November — and was also chosen to officially open this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with a first-night gala premiere.
If Hollywood does not exactly need another tale of a Scottish warrior with a brave heart and a medieval mullet, Glasgow-based filmmaker David Mackenzie is at least a good man for the job — even if the director of 2016’s excellent neo-classic Western Hell or High Water has also taken the blasphemous risk of casting a non-Scotsman as his lead, reuniting with High Water’s Chris Pine.
As 14th-century Gaelic nobleman Robert the Bruce, the sunny Los Angeles native manages to look surprisingly right in chain mail, hiding his California jawline beneath a tangled beard and adopting a convincing-enough Scottish burr. He’ll need at least some of that wooly gravitas to inspire his countrymen to rise up against King Edward I (a great, casually imperious Stephen Dillane) and take back their land and pride from the English.
Bruce finds his loyal tribe, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s fiercely endearing Lord of Douglas and a lovely, independent-minded bride (Lady Macbeth‘s Florence Pugh). He also has a mortal enemy in Edward (Billy Howle of Dunkirk and On Chesil Beach), a mad-eyed prince with a bowl cut to match his psychopathic tendencies. (William Wallace also appears briefly as secondary character, though he’s made of something much darker and more feral than Mel Gibson’s imagining).
Mackenzie falls a little too in love with his battle scenes; by the fourth clash of blood and swords it all starts to feel like déjà vu, with different horses. At nearly two and a half hours, there’s clearly room to trim (though one chaotic escape scene near the end may be the best river nightmare since Revenant). But he also films it beautifully in the natural light of candles, torches, and overcast skies, and there’s a solidness to the old-fashioned conventions of his storytelling. Unlike Bruce’s scrappy band of rebels, Outlaw never really has the element of surprise: It just comes in blazing, like a king. B+