“Outlaw King” is a historical war drama about Robert Bruce (Chris Pine, “Wonder Woman”), a fearless pariah who leads a rebellion with his countrymen to reclaim his homeland from the formidable English army in the 14th century. While the movie boasts a strong attention to period detail and notable battle sequences, “Outlaw King” collapses onto a weak narrative skeleton and proves mostly unwatchable in its later acts.
Some of the film’s few highlights are its costumes and set design. The first quarter, which largely takes place during indoor feasts, never fails to appear genuinely synchronistic. The appropriately plain kilts, candlelit interiors of war tents and gleaming armor of soldiers breathed life into an otherwise bland visual palette and dismal conversation scenes.
The inarguable high point of “Outlaw King,” however, is its first shot. The nine-minute take initially reveals the politics of the war in the confines of a dark tent, then travels to the brighter war camp outside. From there, the shot showcases a brilliantly choreographed sword duel that likely took weeks to rehearse, as well as an impressive catapult launch that ends in a fiery explosion. At first, this opening sequence truly seems to herald strong camerawork and action scenes from director David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”).
And yet, for all the effort that Mackenzie puts into his later battle sequences, they fall short of being original. One sequence involving a riverbank by a dense forest was so reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” that it felt tacky. Another set piece involving a fiery nighttime assault on Bruce’s camp brilliantly combined practical and digital effects to immerse a viewer in the heat of the battle, but gradually descended into incoherence as Mackenzie’s camerawork lost its focus.
Aside from the film’s action and costumes, it is a thoughtlessly constructed mess in terms of narrative, editing and pacing. Almost every character feels underdeveloped and poorly written, to the point that entire passages of dialogue play out nonsensically. While there are a few standout performances from Pine and Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones”), even their lines feel wooden and hollow. Pine specifically does an admirable job as a scruffy rebel king, and his Scottish accent is spot-on. Though the strength of his performance cannot overcome a painfully weak script, there are several moments in the film in which viewers are left wondering why characters make the decisions they do, forced to supplant their memory with only guesses as to the logic of events. Whether involving a rushed romantic subplot between Bruce and Queen Margaret (newcomer Rebecca Robin) or a deceitful murder toward the film’s start, Mackenzie does not seem to care whether viewers even receive such explanations.
Another reason that the narrative of “Outlaw King” may confound the audience is through its editing. While the film lasts just over two hours, the original cut was clearly much longer. There are obvious gaps in the story, entire missing scenes that later contribute to a payoff that simply doesn’t land. In particular, when a fighter dies on the battlefield, the frames decelerate to slow-motion. The heroes cry the name of their fallen companion, but the audience often has no idea who just died. The emotional impact of these moments is nearly negligible because the source of attachment to these soldiers — a backstory — ended up on the cutting room floor.
Although, inserting these scenes back into the film would not be a neat solution either. In the third and penultimate act, “Outlaw King” takes a turn, to put it mildly, toward being boring. The film is paced in a way that bookends the narrative tension, and towards the middle, viewers may not so much wonder what happens next as they will why they are still watching. A subplot involving Bruce’s wife and a dull recruiting phase for the rebellion cut between each other for what seems like an eternity.
For diehard war movie fans, this film might just offer a solid half hour of enjoyment. For everyone else, myself included, “Outlaw King” is below passable and not worth seeing.