Outlaw King (2018)

2018 #232
David Mackenzie | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Outlaw King

If Netflix’s latest original movie is known for one thing, it’s for featuring a shot of Chris Pine’s penis. It’s no slight on the chap to say its appearance has generated more column inches than he possesses, though admittedly it’s hard to be certain when (penis spoilers!) it only appears for a split second in a long shot as he rises from a lake — who knows how far beneath the surface it may continue?

If the film is known for two things, the second would probably be the muted reception its premiere screening received at TIFF back in September. Director David Mackenzie scurried back to the edit suite, motivated as much by personal displeasure with how the film was playing as by the critics’ reaction, and chopped out around 20 minutes ahead of its wide Netflix debut. By the account of people who’ve seen both cuts, this has definitely improved the film’s pacing.

If the film’s known for three things, the next might actually be what it’s about. Picking up more or less where Braveheart left off, it’s the story of Scotland’s (possible) rightful king, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) — or, as the English king seems to keep calling him, Robert da Bruce (yo!) — and his attempt to unite the Scots and take back their land from the English (what else is new, eh?) Robert’s new English wife, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), must decide whose side she’s on as King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and his petulant son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), employ any means necessary (with preference to brutally violent ones) to keep Scotland English.

Penis King. Er, I mean, Pine is King.

Outlaw King kicks off in style, with a superb eight-minute single-take that moves in and out of a candle-lit tent during daytime (a feat of camera operating to seamlessly handle the changing exposures required… assuming it wasn’t faked), during which we take in important scene-setting political discussions, a playful (but not really) sword fight, and the siege of a distant castle by a gigantic trebuchet. As opening salvos go, this is first rate. The whole movie is gorgeously shot by Barry Ackroyd, in particular some stunning aerial shots of wide-open scenery — all of it genuinely Scottish, too. In terms of individual sequences though, the opener is not challenged until the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, a bloody, muddy, sometimes confusing (deliberately, I think) scrap between the small Scottish forces and the huge English army. How can the Scots possibly win? Tactics. I love a good medieval-style battle with proper tactics (rather than just a free-for-all of troops running at each other), and I’d say this delivers.

In between these bookends, the film is almost a Robin Hood movie: after Robert has himself crowned King of the Scots, he’s declared an outlaw, and ends up on the run with a small band of followers, which leads them to use guerrilla tactics against occupied castles. There’s also a subplot about the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth, his second wife, forced upon him by the conquering English king at the start of the film. Apparently this is one thing that’s suffered from Mackenzie’s new cut, with less time given to seeing their relationship blossom early on. It didn’t feel fatally underdeveloped to me, but it might not’ve hurt to add an extra scene (one would probably do) to help connect the dots between their initial wariness and later trusting devotion.

The overall effect doesn’t feel rousing and celebratory in the way classical historic war epics (like, of course, Braveheart) normally do, but I also don’t think that’s Mackenzie’s goal. He’s talked about endeavouring to make it reasonably historically accurate, and real-life is seldom as clear-cut and triumphant as those movies would have us believe. That said, there’s no doubting who the heroes and villains are here, with the honourable Robert trying to regain his homeland and keep his people safe, while the ineffectual Prince of Wales flounders around, all bluster and no success, slaughtering people for kicks. Boo, nasty English!

Muddy; bloody

As that Robert, I thought Chris Pine made a more convincing Scotsman than Mel Gibson. I did praise the latter’s performance in my review of Braveheart, but nonetheless I never quite forgot that William Wallace was being played by American Movie Star Mel Gibson, whereas here Pine — and his (to my non-Scottish ears) perfectly passable accent — blends seamlessly with the rest of the cast. With supporting roles filled with quality performers like James Cosmo and Tony Curran, you can be assured there are no small parts. Stephan Dillane doesn’t grandstand as the villain, making him more genuinely threatening thanks to an air of calm menace, whereas Billy Howle as his son is a bit more outré, desperate to show his worthiness as heir to the throne, and failing.

Most memorable, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas. Even when the other Scottish nobles are being allowed to surrender and have their lands returned, Edward remains so disgusted by Douglas’ father’s traitorousness that he refuses to grant him the same. That makes him keen to sign up to Robert’s cause, where he’s a screamingly effective fighter. Taylor-Johnson, caked in mud and blood, wild eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs as he slaughters the English, is a sight to behold. “What’s ma fuckin’ name?” he bellows. No one’s going to forget.

Finally, a lot of praise has been reserved by others for Florence Pugh. She’s certainly a rising star, having attracted great notices in Lady Macbeth last year and currently leading the cast of the BBC’s Little Drummer Girl, but something felt off here. I don’t think it’s her fault, though. This Elizabeth feels dropped in from another time, with a very modern confidence and headstrong attitude. If Pugh was playing a woman from a few hundred years later, I’d buy it entirely, but in this setting, I’m not sure. But this is perhaps less her fault and more that of the five(!) credited screenwriters.

“What’s ma fuckin’ name?”

Another thing those scribes haven’t really included are gags. Some have criticised the film for being too serious, lacking in levity, which… I mean, have you not noticed what it’s about? I’m the first person to argue that a film about serious things doesn’t have to be 100% serious — that it’s always okay to include a variety of tones, just like real life — but it’s also okay to, well, not; to create a different experience. I don’t think Outlaw King is shooting for portentousness, which I guess is what those critics mean, but it does aim for a certain kind of intensity. After all, it’s about a small band of men trying to stand up to the greatest army in the world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And if Pine referring to someone as “ye cheeky wee shite” doesn’t raise a smile, well, you don’t know the Scottish well enough.

Even in its new tightened form, Outlaw King is not the outright-success Oscar-hopeful Netflix once touted it as. It’s unlikely to attain the crowd-pleasing success of Braveheart, a film that remains an obvious point of comparison but not an unreasonable one, though on balance I’d struggle to say which of the two I preferred. What this lacks in its spiritual predecessor’s grandstanding, it makes up with grit and guts (literally), making an historical war movie that frequently thrills.

4 out of 5

Outlaw King is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Wonder Woman (2017)

2017 #81
Patty Jenkins | 141 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Hong Kong / English | 12A / PG-13

Wonder Woman

Following Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (her central role in that film’s final act surely being the inspiration for its terrible subtitle), here we flash back in time to learn her origin — of her childhood on a hidden island of warrior women; of the events that brought her into our world; and of what made her keep quietly to the sidelines for almost a century.

The fourth film in DC’s shared cinematic universe, commonly dubbed the DCEU, is by far its best reviewed to date. It’s also the first superhero movie of the modern era (i.e. post Iron Man) to be based around a female character. I can’t help but think one has a lot to do with the other, because, in my estimation, Wonder Woman is not massively better than or different to the action-adventure blockbusters we get several of every year — the only exception being, of course, that it stars a woman. While that is undoubtedly important, and its meaningfulness can apparently not be understated, it doesn’t automatically elevate the quality of the rest of the movie. Or maybe it does for some people — maybe “the same, but with a woman” is enough to make it a genre classic.

The film’s strongest feature (gender politics aside) is its cast. Gal Gadot is fantastic — it’s no wonder this role seems to have made her an instant star. Chris Pine also gives a likeable performance, while Lucy Davis nails the comedic support. Also of note are the strong Amazonian ladies who shape Diana’s childhood, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. On the other side of the fence, Danny Huston is pretty much wasted, while David Thewlis ultimately feels a little miscast.

If anyone can take a sword to a gun fight...

The action is very much from the Zack Snyder school — an inexplicable mix of slow-mo and almost-sped-up (or speed-ramped, as it is either known or people have become fond of calling it). Fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into this all the time — while it was a neat effect when it was new, now it feels derivative and overdone. The rest of the action is of mixed quality: some of it is exciting and well-staged, but at other times succumbs to the modern foibles of shooting it too close and cutting it too fast. The climax is a disappointingly bland CGI-athon, which goes on and on as if someone is stalling for time while they try to think how to end it.

The third act as a whole is probably the film’s biggest problem. The opening stuff on Secret Lady Island is all great; the middle stuff in London is often fun; and there’s some dramatic stuff when Diana & co first arrive on the front lines. It does drag a little in places, mainly when we get the umpteenth go-round of Diana and Steve debating their relative morals; but it’s as the film tries to bring itself towards a conclusion that it really begins to flounder, forcibly manoeuvring our heroes into a position to actually face the villains (who we’ve been seeing on-and-off in scenes where the only purpose is to remind us those characters exist). For instance, there’s a party scene which serves very little purpose. It’s not a bad idea for a sequence (even if it is a well-worn one), but it doesn’t contribute much to justify its existence. You could cut it entirely and nothing would be lost.

Undercover woman

Even after the climactic battle, some things just aren’t rounded off. Like, how Secret Lady Island sort of just disappears from the story (does Diana want to get back there? Does she try? What’s happened to it now Ares is dead?) There’s no closure given to the supporting cast either; and, as the inevitable sequel is reportedly to be set in the present day, I doubt there ever will be. They may not be the greatest or deepest characters, but Davis at least feels like she needs a final moment (there’s one included on the Blu-ray, at least, though it feels like it was intended as a post-credits tease that someone thought better of).

I don’t want to try to ‘mansplain’ (*shudder*) away the significance of either Wonder Woman as a character or this Wonder Woman movie to female audiences both young and old. It’s fantastic that there’s a strong, capable, independent, successful role model being presented in the blockbuster arena. It’s brilliant that it was also directed by a woman, something all too rare in movies as a whole, never mind big-budget ones (though note that none of the three credited screenwriters are female). It’s marvellous that it’s been such a big box office success, proving that these issues are important, and that Hollywood’s received wisdom that “female superhero movies don’t sell” is exactly as bullshit as it always has been. And, actually, all of that is good for men and boys too — to be exposed to such high-profile representations of women that are more than just objects of desire or support for their own endeavours. That’s part of how you begin to change thinking and status in the wider world.

Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

But, if you set societal significance aside, I don’t think this particular film is any better, nor any worse, than your averagely good male-led blockbuster. And that’s okay. I like those films. It’s important to have female leads in movies at the same level as their male counterparts. But I think some people have got carried away, hailing a film that’s averagely-good as being incredibly-great just because it has a female protagonist. In some respects, maybe they’re right, just to make the point (I won’t be surprised if the same thing happens next year with Black Panther and heroes of colour). But there’s been talk of Wonder Woman launching a Best Picture campaign, and I feel that’s just a little bit daft.

Still, let’s not end on a down note. I enjoyed Wonder Woman a lot, even as it exhibited many of the flaws — and, equally, many of the successes — found in most blockbusters nowadays. It’s a good blockbuster, and its significance in terms of little girls (and boys) seeing a strong, capable female hero is immense.

4 out of 5

The latest DCEU movie, Justice League, is in cinemas now.

Hell or High Water (2016)

2017 #19
David Mackenzie | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hell or High Water

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.





The line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, is blurred once again by the writer of Sicario in this tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) committing a series of bank robberies for reasons beyond greed, and the two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) hunting them down.

I don’t think it would be unkind to describe Hell or High Water as a genre picture: it’s a crime thriller about bank robbers and the police out to catch them, with its setting and tone also bringing something of the Western — or, rather, neo-Western. (It bugs me a little when people refer to films not set in the Old West as “Westerns”, because that seems an inherent part of the genre to me. Naturally, the term “neo-Western” has already been coined, and I feel it’s one we should start using more widely.) There is something more to it than that though, which might explain its slightly incongruous presence among 2017’s Best Picture nominees. In part it’s a social drama, the characters’ motivations based in very topical concerns, including their plan that represents a form of revenge against the banks who have it coming.

Pair of crooks

In another part it’s a character drama. Indeed, the acting is the best part. Jeff Bridges subsumes himself in the character, an old lawman on the verge of retirement, but still sharp and capable, who won’t know what to do with himself once he’s put out to pasture — this is his last great hurrah. He got all the plaudits because he’s Jeff Bridges, but it doesn’t feel massively outside his wheelhouse. Conversely, Chris Pine is practically a revelation. Best known for leading blockbusters, here he convinces as a father who’s finally trying to do the right thing for the future of his kids, whether that thing is legal or not. When these two finally come face to face, it’s nail-biting. That’s to do no disservice to Ben Foster, as Pine’s wildcard brother, who perhaps has less honourable intentions; or Gil Birmingham as a fellow Ranger, who Bridges spends most of the film mercilessly teasing, though it turns out conceals an underlying affection for his friend.

Credit is also definitely due to director David Mackenzie, who certainly has an eye for a shot and a way with constructing an action sequence, for which credit must also be due to editor Jake Roberts. Similarly to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who evokes a dusty West Texas with its own kind of sandblasted desolate beauty.

Pair of cops

Hell or High Water is a very good film, a neo-Western crime thriller genre movie that is exceptionally well directed, shot, and performed. Yet somehow it feels out of place among the Best Picture nominees — like, it’s not that good. Of course, Oscar has a long history of nominating films that aren’t good enough, and Hell or High Water is better than most of them. So while I don’t feel I can stretch to giving it five stars, I certainly recommend it highly.

4 out of 5

Hell or High Water is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 #183
Justin Lin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Star Trek Beyond

The cover of Star Trek Beyond’s Blu-ray proudly proclaims that it’s “the best reviewed action movie of the year”. I don’t think that’s true (Civil War, anyone?), but it does indicate the mindset producing these films nowadays: they’re not the serious-minded sci-fi the Trek franchise was once known for, but action-orientated summer blockbusters.

As that, Beyond is pretty entertaining. An overall lighter tone than the heavy-handed Into Darkness, plus competently executed action sequences and fewer incredulity-inducing contrivances, make for a fun adventure.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t succumb to the modern franchise proclivity for forcing third movies to be trilogy-formers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising though: it was confirmed before Beyond’s release that a fourth (aka fourteenth) movie is in development, so obviously this shouldn’t feel like the end of the road for this crew. The upside of this is that Beyond can get on with its story, unworried about being Epic.

Explosive

The downside is it creates a “just another adventure” feel to the plot — a bread-and-butter situation for Star Trek’s original TV format, but underwhelming in an expensive blockbuster movie franchise. Consequently Beyond feels inessential. That’s an odd sensation in a franchise nowadays, where the usual MO sees every movie feed into a bigger multi-film narrative. But with Into Darkness being deliberately ignored here (thanks to its unpopularity with hardcore Trekkies) and Beyond functioning as “just another adventure”, Trek is almost a franchise-out-of-time, where individual instalments can be entirely enjoyed in isolation.

Not that I think that’s a bad thing. Beyond may lack a certain epicness, but it’s entertaining enough for what it is.

4 out of 5

Star Trek Beyond is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

2016 #69
Kenneth Branagh | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Russia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitKenneth Branagh, who once used to direct films based on Shakespeare and opera and that kind of thing, seems to have carved himself a place as a jobbing blockbuster director so far this decade: it started with a spot in Marvel’s then-burgeoning universe, adapting Thor; saw arguably its greatest success with the live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella; and he’s now working on an adaptation of young adult action-adventure Artemis Fowl — all released by Walt Disney Pictures, incidentally.

In amongst those, he helmed this: a second attempt (after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears) to relaunch (after a sortoftrilogy in the early ’90s) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst-cum-spy (the titular Mr Ryan, obviously) as a Bond/Bourne-rivaling action-thriller franchise. It didn’t work. (Next try: make it a TV series for Amazon.) While I can’t pretend to be shedding any tears over the wasted opportunity of not getting another spy franchise, that’s not for lack of enjoyment: demonstrating perhaps even more versatility than with his comic book adaptation (which was kinda Shakespearean, really) or his Disney fairytale (which was a grandiose period drama, really), here Branagh managed to craft a very creditable action-thriller — with emphasis on the latter, an uncommon choice these days. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t catch on.

Rather than going back to Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit chooses to relocate Ryan to the present day, and takes its inspiration from a 2007 Black List screenplay called Dubai. Dubai is, of course, a notoriously pricey Middle Eastern city, and therefore we naturally assume rich in oil. Shadow Recruit’s plot begins with the US refusing to veto a pipeline that will damage Russian oil interests — somehow, I suspect there wasn’t too much re-writing required here. Anyway, following this decision, Afghanistan veteran turned undercover CIA financial analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a plot to crash the value of the dollar, which will lead to a new Great Depression. Dispatched to Moscow to investigate, Badass Branaghhe comes up against oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), the architect of the plan, which will be instigated by a massive terrorist attack on US soil. Unless Ryan can stop him, of course — with the help of his handler (Kevin Costner), and his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley), who’s followed him to Russia because she thinks he’s having an affair. I mean, he was sneaking around a lot…

As I said, the film wasn’t a success, either critically or commercially — despite casting a young, theoretically popular lead in Chris Pine, it didn’t attract the young audience needed to produce blockbuster numbers these days. I guess playing the “thriller” rather than “action” card didn’t pay off, so maybe a TV series is a smarter move after all? I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think the reaction has been unduly harsh, because Shadow Recruit is very effective at what it sets out to do, and is, in my view, easily the most entertaining Jack Ryan movie since at least the first, The Hunt for Red October. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise: I was disappointed by both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger when I finally watched them in 2014, and I described Sum of All Fears as “an adequately entertaining two hours. Otherwise, it’s nothing special.”

Shadow Recruit probably isn’t anything special either, mind. Branagh manages to mount a few excellent sequences, including a very tense dinner / infiltration combo in the middle of the film, where Cathy has to keep Cherevin occupied while Ryan nips over the road and breaks into the oligarch’s office, which develops into a solid car chase. The dynamic is also Just going for a runa little different to the action-thriller norm. Ryan has skills leftover from his military days, but he’s not a one-man army like Bond or Bourne — he needs help both on the ground and from tech guys behind the scenes, who play a vital role in… well, I was going to say “the climax”, but it’s “the bit just before the climax”. The climax is a chase around New York, because of course you have to end with a chase.

This was meant to be a defence of Shadow Recruit and I feel like I’m doing a poor job. Thing is, it’s not up to the quality of the much-mentioned Two Bs when they’re at their best, but its relatively plot-and-character-orientated style distinguishes it from those franchises’ regular MOs. Plus Branagh brings a greater cinematic quality than you’ll find in, say, that Spooks movie, meaning Shadow Recruit straddles the divide between TV-level spying and big-screen action in a way that TV spin-off wanted to but couldn’t really manage. Perhaps the character really will work better in a big-budget TV series, then?

4 out of 5