Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.
The thing that’s fun about occasionally being late to the party with a movie review is that, well, you can simply say the words “Chris Pine hangs dong in this movie” and not feel like you’re a total weirdo, given that the internet latched on to Pine’s brief nude scene like rubber cement in the intervening days since it premiered as the fest’s opening night film.
Aside from that, Outlaw King (or is it Outlaw / King, Netflix? That’s what it says on the title card), the Robert the Bruce biopic from Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie, is kind of a wash. And it’s not because Mackenzie is walking across mud thoroughly trod upon by Mel Gibson, though the comparison only hurts it more, it’s because it’s long and dull in its own right.
Things start out promisingly enough with a decently impressive tracking shot, which comes as Robert, pressured by his father into abandoning his dreams of an independent Scotland and the rest of the nobles are pledging their loyalty to the King of England, Edward I (Stephan Dillane). We go from that initial moment of failure and frustration directly outside the tent where the meeting occurred, where the Bruce gets into a “friendly” contest of swordsmanship with the King’s large adult son, Prince Philip (Billy Howle, last seen prematurely ejaculating on a horrified Saoirse Ronan in Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach) whom Robert knows from his childhood and hates accordingly. The scene wraps up with the King catapulting Greek Fire onto the last holdout’s castle, and the film grinds to a screeching halt after that. He marries an famed Englishman’s daughter, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), in an attempt to bring peace and settles for what little he has left in life — his land, his daughter (from a previous marriage) and his dog — until a chance encounter with a John the Baptist-like William Wallace changes his life.
Soon enough, Bruce’s situation changes: His domineering father passes away, and he discovers that Wallace has been dismembered by the English upon his capture (if there’s one laudable thing about this movie, it’s that it commits to showing all of the gore). It’s then that he decides to strike out for Scotland’s independence once again, breaking his oath to the King and becoming, once again, the most hated man in all of Scotland. Robert murders a rival on sacred ground, and that pisses off most of the Scots, the English are mad at him for the whole “treason” thing, and others doubt his commitment to things outside of it being a mere attempt to place himself atop an unjustly-claimed throne. The man does have his allies, including James Douglas (a psychotic Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who just wants his land back, but they’re beset on all sides by trouble. That is, until, they begin taking back seized land from the English, using their cunning and brutality to launch an insurgent campaign against the crown.
If you have trouble keeping up with this film, you’re not alone: Mackenzie and his screenwriters throw so many goddamn characters at you that it’s hard to keep up with who beheaded what where outside of the main names in the cast, and I think this is a problem medieval true-to-life action films have had ever since Lord of the Rings. We forget that those were three three-to-four hour films, not two and a half, and there’s not enough time for the characterization necessary for those people and their fortunes and ills to make a mark. It’s all bland, except when the film tries to inject moments of blockbuster humor into the mix, and that’s when it gets truly terrible. I’ve don’t know if I’ve seen such a tonally disruptive gag in one of these things than the one where, upon seeing Robert chivalrously leave Elizabeth’s on the night of their arranged marriage instead of fucking her, a peasant remarks to his wife about the speed of their consummation, and the wife reminds him that he blows his goof juice too quick all of the time at home. Well, not in those exact words, but you get the point. It’s this island of goofery that stands in contrast to the grey boredom of the rest of the film
Unfortunately, the film’s saddled with another huge-ass problem as well: Its lead. No, it’s not a problem with Pine’s accent (though it sort of comes and goes as it pleases): It’s the blasé way he’s portrayed. You can tell how Mackenzie directed Pine here: He wants Robert to be regal, stoic and steadfast, a man of honor and of action, and the actor tries his best with it. The problem is that Pine’s too fucking charismatic to pull that off in a believable way, and the moments of light and levity that do stick out from underneath that cold exterior contradict the rest of the performance. It makes him look bored, which is an astonishing thing for a film about a historical badass to do to its protagonist.
And if you’re going to treat the reason for the movie existing like you’d treat a bowl of unflavored oatmeal, how the hell are you going to pull off a compelling action sequence? So, Outlaw King may have more Pine nuts in it than any other mainstream movie, but you’ll only manage to remember the memes after things are said and done.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.