In my review of last month's Bad Times at the El Royale, a digest of everything Quentin Tarantino got up to in the immediate wake of Reservoir Dogs, I proposed the cinema had successfully eaten itself up to the 1990s. The emergence this past weekend of Outlaw/King, a few weeks on from Bad Times and the space opus First Man, allows me to further triangulate and narrow that initial judgement to the year 1995. If First Man, with its depiction of nuts-and-bolts American heroism, is this year's Apollo 13, then David Mackenzie's new film arrives as 2018's Braveheart, that semi-notorious Mel Gibson passion project that hasn't been watched by a single person since the night of its Best Picture triumph. True, Outlaw/King operates to the left of that film, in a muddier field yet; it keeps its universe's William Wallace offscreen, spoken of as in retreat before his final martyrdom. Mackenzie's camera instead trains itself on Robert the Bruce (a bearded Chris Pine), whom we first meet negotiating a fragile-seeming accord with Edward I (Stephen Dillane) at the behest of a father bent on appeasement. The peace has its upsides - it hands Robert a comely young bride in English noblewoman Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) - but leaves our hero with gnawing doubts over whether this deal is the best way to serve a people, or his land. The film's first achievement is to suggest how the political discourse of the early 1400s wasn't so terribly dissimilar from that of 2018. We may have gone back that far.
For the longest of whiles at the beginning of his directorial career, Mackenzie seemed like a gadabout in the Winterbottom-Soderbergh mould, restlessly bashing out half-formed experiments on the pittance available to him. (I can barely remember it now, but his nadir was surely that skidoodle that followed one of the Treadaway brothers as he traipsed round a muddy music festival: even cinemagoers who enjoy spending time around damp campsites didn't want to do so in such unpromising company.) He took a big step up, however, with Starred Up, his concentrated prison picture of 2014; then again with Hell or High Water, which carried Mackenzie to the US and taught him there was no shame whatsoever in making a big-picture movie rather than messing round at the margins. The rescaling of ambitions continues here, no doubt consolidated by Netflix's millions: Mackenzie has armed himself with a major Hollywood star, hundreds if not thousands of extras, and a decent smattering of authentic period detail. Clearly, the huge international success of HBO's Game of Thrones has given producers confidence that audiences will be drawn to - rather than repelled by - muddy, bloody medieval mores, possibly as they recognise something of the barbarism of our own late-capitalist moment within them. (I've long maintained that GoT has only become as popular as it has because it closely mirrors the scheming and politicking now required to get through a long day in the office; either that, or an entire generation is wildly hung up on dragons and boobs.)
Outlaw/King duly gives us some sex (including a much-overhyped glimpse of the Pine peen) as well as the altogether less edifying spectacle of sackclothed patsies being disembowelled, but it's been compiled with a seriousness around Scottish history and heritage that does indeed suggest the presence of a Scotsman behind the camera, rather than an Australian hellraiser keen to map his own legend as a libertarian boozer and shagger onto the central character. Why, then, does it get markedly less persuasive as it goes on? It's not down to Pine, who's matured appreciably since his first starring roles, when he presented as a smirking boyband refugee; that he's not a Gibson is evident from his willingness to concede screen time to the supporting cast he mucks in so well with. (The Gibsonish role here goes to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, cast as "Black James" Douglas, who early on overhears the King issuing a decree banning his name from being uttered in his presence, and thus spends the remainder of the film hollering "Douglas!" as Gibson once hollered "Freedom!") Caught on his own, Pine cuts a thoughtful, reflective figure, taking time to consider his options, and to woo a bride all but handed to him on a platter: unlike the headstrong William Wallace of Braveheart, here is a hero who doesn't enter into anything lightly or easily.
It's the film around him that does that, scrambling through its midsection to get to its main event - a broadly impressive final-reel recreation of the Battle of Loudoun Hill, to which multiple stunt teams and a fair chunk of the budget must have been assigned. Mackenzie, whom you sense may still be a little unsure of his capacity to deliver a crowdpleasing entertainment, cut twenty minutes after the mixed reception the film received on its debut at this year's Toronto film festival: while the new version gallops along, you may find yourself wanting it to dig its heels in from time to time, as Gibson's three-hour venture into adjacent territory did; Outlaw/King has an appreciably epic look, but a lightweight's build. (One stiff gust of wind off the Firth of Clyde, and it would surely blow away.) Gibson, of course, had the luxury of a major studio budget and final cut - no-one could wrestle that off him - which in this case turns out to be the advantage, allowing Braveheart to develop a sense, however misguided or ill-informed, of history in the making. Mackenzie, making do, throws up clumps of mottled facial hair and pockets of politicking, separated by swirling helicopter shots of rolling Highland moors that succeed in defining this country as a prize up for grabs, but these elements never really cohere, lacking the connecting narrative tissue that would explain how these green fields came to be churned up and redecorated in crimson. The film that we have is vivid in spots - but it may be the one thing on Netflix right now that feels too damn short for its own good.
Outlaw/King is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming on Netflix.