Scotland’s contributions to cinema peaked in the ’90s with two films that scarred their respective viewers forever: “Trainspotting,” possibly the funniest, darkest movie about heroin addiction; and “Braveheart,” a medieval quasi-historical battlefield epic in which splattering gore and Mel Gibson’s attempt at a William Wallace accent were only slightly more jarring than Renton diving into the Worst Toilet in Scotland. Was “Braveheart” a good movie, in hindsight? No, but that doesn’t stop it from being an awesome movie, and its long shadow gives context to “Outlaw King,” the new biopic of Robert the Bruce, a contemporary of Wallace’s. You can stream it on Netflix right now, or if you’re some sort of feudal lord, see it in limited release in theaters.
Is it a good movie? Not particularly, no. But is it kind of awesome, at least? Yeah, you could say so. And in this long lull between “Game of Thrones” seasons, it’s gratifying to watch Chris Pine as the king of Scotland trying to outflank the English throne in the early 1300s, a guerilla freedom fighter swinging a broadsword and trying not to end up like Wallace, as we see him here: drawn and quartered, with a head on a pike, for rebelling against England’s Edward I. But you still gotta free Scotland, man, so Bruce has to pull some gangster shit and play cat-and-mouse with the crown for a couple of hours. Notable for our current political era: As the stakes ratchet up, both sides quietly swear off “chivalry.”
“Outlaw King” does bring your guilty-pleasure throwback action films to the 21st century with a few key innovations. Drone photography, for one, soaring over valleys and mountains, making you feel like you’re in a Scotch commercial with an unlimited budget. A strong female lead in Rebecca Robin, playing Bruce’s young English wife, who insists convincingly that she be a full partner in their arranged marriage (and then gets tempest-tossed as a damsel in distress, but still). For what it’s worth, too, we’re at the stage in coloring where post-production can make everyone’s blue eyes look like LEDs, and red blood smeared down pale faces look positively garish.
Maybe you’re here for the sketchy history lesson, though presumably you also have access to Wikipedia, or for the Chris Pine full-frontal nudity, or for the period costumes (hope you like off-white tunics set against overcast skies). Or you’re here for battlefield ultraviolence. Director David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”) treats combat, especially at the climactic Loudoun Hill, as a muddy, gory, exhausting slog, and achieves an effect that can stand alongside “Braveheart” or, hell, “Saving Private Ryan” in its intensity and realism. The sensation of hunkering behind a spear-lined berm as the English calvary cascades over — impaling horses, tossing knights — remains the most resonant moment in the film. And after the battle, affectingly, soldiers sit and weep.
What you’ll miss in this fairly compact 90 minutes is simple reprieve. How about a joke here and there, eh? Playing Edward I, you do get a deliciously cranky Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon from “Game of Thrones,” for your mini-fix), who browbeats his too-eager would-be despotic son, also an Edward (Billy Howle), but without many laugh lines. Characters rarely sit down and talk with one another, so it’s difficult in a sense to get to know them. If there’s one overriding frustration to muddle through in “Outlaw King,” it’s that you could get through it and never have much of a sense of Bruce himself. Reserved, hard-fighting, magnanimous, courageous, sure. But how does he think about the world? What are the stories he tells? Does he have an inner world, or is he just an accretion of noble qualities? No time to find out. The English are coming on horseback. We’ve got ditches to dig.