“Outlaw King” tells a story that is both old and old-fashioned but does it in a decidedly modern way. Cowritten and directed by David Mackenzie, it gives hope to moviegoers who value venerable action genres and will be pleased to see them showing signs of life.
Though Mackenzie’s last film, the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water,” was set firmly in the contemporary American West, he is as Scottish as his name implies, and this story of the 14th century journey of storied Scots ruler Robert the Bruce from outlaw to king feels like something he’s been waiting his whole life to take on.
Making excellent use of his “High Water” star Chris Pine as the Bruce, Mackenzie brings a contemporary sensibility as well as a sense of epic adventure and a passion for the period to a ripsnorter of a tale.
Working with top cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker” and Ken Loach’s atmospheric “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”), Mackenzie shot entirely in Scotland (according to, the credits insist, the borders of 1320) and as much as possible in remote and beautiful areas.
Similarly the director, veteran production designer Don Burt and costume designer Jane Petrie have given “Outlaw King” a lived-in look, creating a world that appears muddy and primitive in Ackroyd’s immersive camerawork even when its inhabitants are at their most regal.
For many non-Scots, key connections to the Bruce may be limited to the children’s storybook tale of his encounter with a persistent spider and his appearance as a character in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”
We don’t see the spider in action (though a few webs turn up, perhaps as tributes to the durability of the legend), and the “Outlaw King” script, written by Bash Doran, Mackenzie and James MacInnes, chooses to focus on a self-contained three-year period instead of complex and exhausting decades of battles.
The action begins in 1304, when all the Scottish lords still standing arrive at Stirling Castle to pledge fealty to successful invader King Edward I of England (an excellent Stephen Dillane). William Wallace (Gibson’s “Braveheart” character) is still at large, but his days are numbered.
Robert the Bruce is there, along with his father and his three brothers, but he is not happy about Bruce the senior’s decision to submit. Not one little bit.
Content or not, this turns out to be a busy day for the Bruce. He has a run-in with the king’s ill-tempered son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), watches as the legendarily hot-headed James Douglas (scene-stealing Aaron Taylor-Johnson), known to history as the Black Douglas, gets thrown out of the big tent, and even has his personal life attended to.
As a sign of royal favor, King Edward presents the widowed Scot with a new bride, his goddaughter Elizabeth de Burgh, expertly played by Florence Pugh, memorable for her starring role in British indie hit “Lady Macbeth.”
Though quite young, Elizabeth is clearly a woman of spirit and nothing like the submissive type. In true movie fashion, sparks fly between her and the Bruce the moment their eyes meet, and watching their relationship play out over the course of the film provides a pleasant break from the film’s battle scenes, of which there are many.
For it is the main business of “Outlaw King” to show the long and complex chain of circumstances that lead the Bruce to have himself first declared King of the Scots and then try to gather allies and reignite a rebellion against England that all his subjects are sick of.
Though it’s unlikely Mackenzie would have thought of the American Pine for this role if the two had not previously worked together, the actor, best known for his franchise movie work in “Star Trek” and “Wonder Woman,” gets to exhibit a kind of brooding gravitas that suits him well.
The film’s time span may be only three years, stopping at 1307’s Battle of Loudon Hill, but the Bruce gets to experience lots of setbacks, including having to lead “50 men against the strongest army in the world.” Like that unseen spider, he knows how to persevere.
The director himself knows something about perseverance. Unhappy with the rushed cut that debuted at Toronto (“It felt like it was a little long and perhaps there were one or two fight scenes too many”), he went back to the editing room and cut some 20 minutes.
Inevitably violent (though a disemboweling still seems excessive), as edited by Jake Roberts “Outlaw King” now moves along at a satisfyingly brisk pace. While we likely have not seen the end of Robert the Bruce on film, this for sure is a worthy addition to the canon.
Rated: R, for sequences of brutal war violence, some sexuality, language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles, and streaming on Netflix