dir: Neil Marshall
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What a sweet relief! Thanks for making a decent film again, Neil Marshall.
His last flick Doomsday was hilariously bad, but with Centurion he’s regained his stature (in my eyes at least) as someone who can make decent action flicks. Dog Soldiers was a long time ago. The Descent is his masterpiece thus far (and is not tainted by the cheapie sequel he didn’t direct). Doomsday made me think he was going to turn into a hack on the level of a Paul W.S. Anderson, Kurt Wimmer, Len Wiseman or David S. Goyer: purest of total hacks to a man, which is why I keep going on about it.
But no, he’s still got some class. This flick was seen by next to no-one, and will never recoup even a quarter of its budget. But financial details are never why I talk about a flick. This is a straight-forward, excessively bloody action film which I thoroughly enjoyed, usually despite and sometimes because of its shortcomings. It has a fairly simple premise: bunch of guys trapped behind enemy lines try to get to safety as an implacable enemy chases them down. So there’s lots of running, but that running is interspersed with hundreds of decapitations, brutal executions and more CGI blood than a Japanese horror flick. Seriously, this day and age has a level of technology that has thrown off any possible restrictions that might have existed in the amount of blood you could show onscreen at any given point. Nowdays, the slightest paper cut results in an ejaculation of hundreds of litres of CGI blood all over a grateful screen.
The truly most excellent Irish actor Michael Fassbender plays the lead character, Quintus Dias, a centurion in the Roman Army circa 117 AD, stationed at the northernmost fort in Brittania, which amounts to Scotland for those of you who aren’t history buffs. The Romans have been losing the fight to control the region, being steadily whittled down by the Picts (feral Celts), who are using guerrilla tactics to take on an enemy that only knows how to fight in stodgy formations. If you’ve ever met or known any Scottish people, you’d know now what the Romans clearly couldn’t grasp then: they are not to be fucked with if you value your life or your liver.
Everyone at Quintus’ fort is killed, and he is taken prisoner by a Pict leader called Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen, who I remember from ages ago as the lead in the first of the Dogme films, and one of the only ones that was any good, being Festen), and tormented. The Picts have every right to hate the Romans, since they have been, for decades, trying to break their resistance to Imperial rule. The charming and benevolent way they were trying to achieve all of this was through mass exterminations, general butchery, mutilation and rape, but then if you want to impose your iron-sandalled rule across the known world, you’ve going to have to break a few eggs to make Empire-sized omelettes.
When he escapes he eventually hooks up with the Ninth Legion, led by General Titus Flavius Virilius (Dominic West, better known to viewers of The Wire as Jimmy McNulty), who are tasked with wiping out the Pictish menace.
Three thousand well provisioned, highly trained, highly enthusiastic Roman legionnaires who adore their general versus a bunch of nature loving crusties. Who do you think would win?
Well, this flick isn’t about actual history, or about what should happen, it’s about what does happen when a group of highly committed insurgents take on an arrogant and technologically advanced enemy. Extra points for drawing contemporary parallels, class.
From here the flick becomes a chase flick as Quintus tries to lead the remnants of the Ninth back to a safe haven, pursued as they are by a mute and very vengeful Pict tracker called Etain (Olga Kurylenko, known from being one of the Bond girls in the last Bond film), who has an almost supernatural ability to track the men over any terrain.
Giving the plot the dynamic of a chase flick means there’s a whole bunch of scenes of men running. They’re running across mountaintop ridges and through snow, in a way that can’t help but be reminiscent of shitloads of scenes from the Lord of the Rings flicks. I don’t mind any of that too much, since I like that kind of footage, even if it’s derivative. My problem with it is because it doesn’t make that much sense for them to be doing it, and surely, from a survival perspective, it’s suicidal.
Film’s aren’t about what makes sense, especially in the context of an action flick, it’s about how it looks, not how it is. And this flick looks great, and has a propulsive momentum to it that works to its advantage.
There’s a lot of other stuff the flick gets right, not least of all in the person of Michael Fassbender as Quintus. The primary problem a flick like this has coming out in 2010 is that calling it Centurion and being about a bunch of Romans engaging in gruesome battles can’t help remind people of another flick that made a bunch of money and starred a certain New Zealander with anger management issues transplanted to Australia and thence Hollywood called Russell Crowe. People would needlessly see this as a Gladiator cash-in / rip-off, and that’s quite unfair. I’m not going to elevate the one and denigrate the other, but this is a substantially different flick.
It’s also nowhere near as pretentious, unlikely or bombastic. It’s a keen little flick that has plenty of cinematic and historical antecedents, but most importantly succeeds as a film about desperate guys trying to survive in a wilderness tracked by merciless adversaries. The remnants of the Ninth can’t be said to possess fully formed characters, but that doesn’t matter, because that wouldn’t help a flick like this. All that matters is that they can be differentiated from each other, and that they die or survive in bold or gruesome ways for our amusement.
Fassbender excels at everything acting-wise that I’ve seen thus far, and he’s fine here too. He has this strangely sibilant voice that underlies the menace he’s capable of, and the physically imposing presence he possesses. It’s also interesting to see him onscreen with Liam Cunningham, with whom he shared the incredible long scene in Hunger, a conversation between priest and IRA prisoner Bobby Sands that should be studied in cinema studies classes for all eternity.
The flick doesn’t stint on violence, being incredibly violent, but also delights the ears with its vulgarity. There’s something refreshing about listening to Roman legionnaires cursing like motherfuckers, especially since I’m so used to hearing them speak in the plumiest of accents and the most BBC-like of tones and grammatical construction.
Here the dialogues pretty snappy even if it resorts to sequences following along the lines of “So what does this mean for us?” “It means we’re fucked.”
The depiction of the Picts is as mostly ruthless savages, but there’s hardly any issue there. The Romans, especially one of the characters trailing behind Quintus in the person of Thax (J.J. Field), are even more scummy and ruthless. The Picts want vengeance, but some of the Legion seem to want to survive to the detriment of their fellow soldiers.
There’s a surprisingly macabre scene where two soldiers, one being the aforementioned Thax and a very fast runner called Macros (Noel Clarke), are being chased by wolves. Early on it’s established that Macros, famous across the Empire for his speed, is also looking out for number one and mentions the desire to take care of anyone of their cohort who’s slowing them down. How it actually works out between Thax and Macros surprised me, and points towards the sardonic sense of humour throughout.
Most of the acting, I have to say, for something predicated on being mostly about running and violence, is quite strong, surprisingly strong for this kind of endeavour. In his early scenes Dominic West dominates scenes so completely, and so charmingly that it saddens me that he’ll probably never again get a role as great as anything he did on The Wire, but gods love him for trying.
In a strange and contrived move, they even manage to introduce a love interest for Quintus that plays a positive role in the film and actually works well. The fact that Imogen Poots decided to go into acting with her surname intact points to me that this is a gutsy woman, who happens to be gorgeous, and who holds her own in the scenes where she’s paired with Fassbender or facing down other Picts, who treat her like a pariah. Despite calling her a witch, there’s nothing supernatural going on in this flick, which is to the flick’s profound benefit.
The fate of the Ninth Legion is suitably treated, and manages to be both downbeat and yet satisfying. The actions of the Romans are portrayed as being far colder, and yet far more barbaric in essence than anything the Picts could manage, especially as a decision is made regarding the history books. It has nothing to do with actual history, but it’s chilling whenever you hear someone make a decision in favour of the Empire’s wellbeing, instead of those struggling to survive.
It’s easy to do this kind of flick, but it’s hard to do it well, and I have to say that I think they did remarkably well on most fronts. It helps that the location shooting is breathtaking, but it points to a sure control of the material, and a bunch of people who, for whatever reason, and possibly knowing there was never going to be any major critical or financial reward for the endeavour, gave everything to get it right. Michael Fassbender deserves to become a star, and Neil Marshall is clearly capable of making decent flicks, which I look forward to seeing down the track.
7 times the computer generated blood flows here more freely and frequently than the floodwaters in Pakistan out of 10
“My name is Quintus Dias, I am a soldier of Rome, and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” – I certainly hope not, Centurion.