Directed by: David Mackenzie , David Michod  || Produced by: David Mackenzie, Gillian Berrie , Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Liz Watts, David Michod, Joel Edgerton 
Screenplay by: Bash Doran, David Mackenzie, James MacInnes , David Michod, Joel Edgerton  || Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Sam Spruell, Tony Curren Callan Mulvey, James Cosmo, Stephen Dillane , Timothee Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn 
Music by: Grey Dogs1, Nicholas Britell2 || Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd1, Adam Arkapaw2 || Edited by: Jake Roberts1, Peter Sciberras2 || Country: United Kingdom1-2, United States1-2, Australia2 || Language: English
Running Time: 121 minutes1, 140 minutes2 || 1 = Outlaw King, 2 = The King
Following the conclusion of Game of Thrones (GoT, 2011-2019), I was reluctant to revisit Medieval period dramas not due to the series’ controversial ending, but rather due to sheer genre exhaustion. This general mood was similar to the mindset I experienced in the years after The Lord of the Rings (LOTR, 2001-2003), whereby most traditional fantasy epics on film or television thereafter failed to live up to that high benchmark; the ongoing saturation of popular culture with LOTR-ripoffs left me wanting to “detox” from that particular genre for a while. Over a decade removed from LOTR, I now appreciate how much GoT has changed the fantasy genre to the point where contemporary fantasy reminds me of Braveheart (1995) more than Dungeons & Dragons. I would not have felt genre-repetition watching the likes of David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King or David Michod’s The King, both Netflix Originals Movies about medieval English monarchs, after the pervasive LOTR mania of the 2000s, but GoT’s relative medieval groundedness has changed what “fantasy-adventure” means in the late 2010s. The pop culture zeitgeist definition of that formula has transformed.
Still, I have been on a Netflix Original binge since 2018 after so many years of postponing the streaming platform revolution that most others sampled as early as 2013. I will continue to watch new high-profile feature-films — and yes, some long-format series, on occasion — exclusive to the Netflix platform until either (a) I learn to stop procrastinating with my work, (b) theatre chains stop sucking, or (c) Netflix stops releasing weird movies that appeal to my odd media diet. None of those things are going to happen, so let’s talk about two recent arms-and-armor epics from two recognizable yet inconsistent filmmakers.
David Mackenzie is responsible for a variety of weird, forgettable dramas produced in his native United Kingdom since the early 2000s, most of which received mediocre recognition save for 2016’s Academy Award-nominated Hell or High Water, whose neo-Western genius apparently flew over my head. His followup to the most critically acclaimed feature of his career was Outlaw King, the dramatization of Robert the Bruce’s (Chris Pine) successful campaign against Edward I-III during the First War of Scottish Independence. Mackenzie’s most expensive production to date, Outlaw King makes great use of on-location photography throughout England and Scotland, memorable production-design in arms and armor, and impressive battle sequences, but memorable characterizations or starring performances? Not so much.
This spiritual sequel to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses despite Mackenzie’s ostensible skepticism of modern nationalism. Outlaw King is nowhere as stylized nor as over-the-top as that cinematic homage to William Wallace, but like the inexplicable 1995 Oscar-favorite, its strongest moments involve its hack-n-slash violence (e.g. the film’s concluding Battle of Loudoun Hill, featuring great horse stunts!) and our principle cast executing medieval guerrilla warfare. Most of our main characters, portrayed by the likes of Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, and Tony Curran are so boring one spends the majority of Act One waiting for the sectarian violence to reignite; thereafter, lead writer Bathsheba Doran’s utilitarian dialogue and veteran director of photography Barry Ackroyd’s action-cinematography can better advance the plot. Some exceptions to Outlaw King’s bland drama exist, like a small but memorable supporting role by Stephen Dillane (also known as Stannis Baratheon from GoT) as King Edward I, as well as several memorable shots of Pine sulking after his initially disastrous military campaign.
David Michod’s The King, a streamlined, loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henriad, is a welcome return to form for the Australian writer-director, who struggled with both The Rover (2014) and War Machine (2017) following his breakout debut, the well received Animal Kingdom (2010). Though not a home-run, Michod’s cinematic take on the ascension of King Henry V (Timothee Chalamet) to the English throne and his participation in the Hundred Year’s War is a dramatic, contemplative analysis on medieval politicking. Its similarities to GoT-style drama also extend to its depiction of medieval warfare, which feels grimy, awkward, inglorious, and all the more gruesome because of that lack of embellishment. Both the film’s climactic Battle of Agincourt, featuring hundreds of extras and visually recalling GoT’s Battle of the Bastards, as well as Chalamet’s single-combat challenge to Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Tom Glynn-Carney), are shot in such morose, dour fashion as to feel more tragic than bloodthirsty. Still, The King’s depiction of violence finds a middle-ground between Outlaw King’s bombastic, stunt-heavy action and, say, S. Craig Zahler’s minimalist, almost observational combat, using just enough choreography, somber music, dark humor, and physicality to produce realistic yet cinematic set-pieces.
In addition to The King’s diegetic strengths and action filmmaking, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s use of natural light in conjunction with Nicholas Britell’s haunting soundtrack maintains a powerful mood throughout. The King’s starring cast of Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, and Robert Pattinson add charismatic flavor to the story, but the movie’s foreboding audiovisual melancholy is its dominant personality. It recalls Emmanuel Lubezki and Alejandro Inarritu’s dedication to natural lighting in The Revenant (2015) with little of that Oscar-favorite’s long-winded storytelling.
In the end, while neither David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King nor David Michod’s The King are absolute monarchs with regards to their cinematic execution, I would recommend the latter over the former due to Michod’s superior characterizations, more diverse action sequences, and more striking cinematography. The King’s use of lighting and music to establish mood, alone, is enough to recommend a viewing, while Outlaw King’s impressive yet derivative portrayal of medieval guerrilla warfare will appeal to few audiences who aren’t diehard fans of Braveheart; then again, Braveheart’s a well regarded crowd-pleaser to this day, even with its narrative absurdities and comical violence, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on Mackenzie’s vision of the original Scottish freedom-fighter.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Outlaw King and The King are two different interpretations of similar historical conflicts whose appeal may depend on their viewer’s expectations of modern fantasy-adventure films as influenced by Game of Thrones. David Mackenzie focuses his work on action set-pieces and sectarian conflict while David Michod seems more interested in mood and character study; while neither focus is inherently better or worse in the abstract, I argue Michod’s execution of his narrative tone through lighting and music are more cinematic than Mackenzie’s entertaining but less memorable hack-n-slash action sequences.
—> Outlaw King is the more “traditional” Hollywood interpretation of period warfare, though its entertainment value is less consistent than The King’s lofty Shakespearean depiction of a monarch coming of age. Therefore, I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to the Scottish epic, while the theatrical ascension of Henry V comes RECOMMENDED.
? Scream a little more, Aaron Taylor-Johnson; maybe then they’ll give you the Oscar.