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Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King.

Netfix / David Eustace

  • Outlaw King
  • Directed by David Mackenzie
  • Written by David Mackenzie, Bathsheba Doran and James MacInnes
  • Starring Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh
  • Classification N/A; 121 minutes

rating

2 out of 4 stars

The historical epic Outlaw King arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September with unfair expectations.

Slotted as the opening night film, the Netflix-produced drama became the first feature from the streaming giant to open a major international festival – a move that signalled a tectonic shift in the industry landscape, whether the mainstream studios liked it or not. (For the record, they do not.) The big-budget project was also director David Mackenzie’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water and marked his second collaboration with Hollywood’s second-most favourite Chris. (That’d be Chris Pine; I’d argue Chris Hemsworth currently leads the pack.)

Against the big-boy hopes of Netflix and the career dreams of its director, Outlaw King endured almost as rocky a TIFF reception as its lead hero, Robert the Bruce, faced when trying to rid Scotland of English rule. The 137-minute film was too long, too bloody, too cheesy. The one and only thing critics seemed to want more of? That’d be further nudity from Pine, who offers audiences a split-second shot of Robert in all his full-frontal splendour.

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But in a rare move, Netflix and Mackenzie listened and took action. A few weeks after the TIFF premiere, it was announced that the director was going back into the editing bay to trim about 20 minutes from the film before its release on the streaming service and select theatres this Friday.

Upon second viewing, it’s mostly difficult to tell what material was cut – which should be a great sign, but in actuality means the film is just slightly less (14.6 per cent, to be exact) of an onerous affair. Characters who were thinly drawn remain so (if not more), while the plot unfolds in the same tedious, repetitive manner.

Acting as a kind of unofficial sequel to Braveheart, Outlaw King traces Robert the Bruce’s many gory battles across Scotland, while taking a few overly sentimental detours into his love life. (Perhaps in a bid to distance itself from Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic focusing on William Wallace, this new edit’s one very notable cut is the removal of a brief interaction between Robert and Wallace, which felt sillier than I’m sure anyone intended.)

The narrative covers a few months of Robert's two-decade-plus campaign, but even with Mackenzie's new cut, it still feels like we witness 20 years' worth of storytelling stuffed into a soggy sack. No time spent in the editing bay can help the film escape its familiar pattern: Robert loses men, stages a minor comeback, then loses again.

Throughout, Mackenzie ratchets up the violence, but what is intended to be visceral ends up becoming almost comical. After watching a Game of Thrones season’s worth of extras get stabbed and impaled and chopped up, the carnage reaches a point of parody that even the notoriously gore-happy Gibson might balk at.

Mackenzie dabbles in some interesting aesthetic experiments here – making good use of natural light, and pulling off a doozy of a single-take scene in the film’s opening eight minutes – yet not enough to distract from the script’s severe weaknesses. Until the next edit, then.

Outlaw King opens Nov. 9 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, the same day it is available to stream on Netflix .

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