Monday, November 22, 2010

A Bloody Good Time

The legend of the Roman Ninth Legion is an interesting one. Supposedly, the veteran legion of over three thousand men who were stationed in Roman-occupied England in the waning years of the Empire disappeared in the woods of Scotland. Though this may no longer be the preferred explanation of historians who believe that the Legion was actually transferred to the eastern fringes of Roman occupancy and destroyed there, either in Judea or Parthia, it's certainly enough of an idea to capture the imagination of filmmakers. Next year, I'll likely check out The Eagle, which is about that very idea (though I'll likely enjoy Jaime Bell's performance more than that of the film's "star", Channing Tatum). But that film likely will have little improvement on a film that reached limited release this year, Neil Marshall's Centurion. When the film was first released this past summer, I was first entranced by the cast, which included The Wire's Dominic West and Quantum of Solace's Olga Kurylenko. When I discovered that Marshall was the director, I was hooked and determined to see the film at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, it's run in theaters was depressingly short, and my busy schedule meant I didn't get a chance to see it immediately. So it was only recently, when i re-discovered the film on DVD, that I finally got the opportunity to sit down and take it in. Would it be worth the wait?

Yeah, if I saw her chasing me, I'd run faster...
Centurion gets off to a quick start. In Roman-occupied Britain, the army is faring poorly against the Picts, Celtic warriors inhabiting the Scottish highlands. The Picts fight a guerrilla war that is foreign to the soldiers of the Roman military. They use sneak attacks and feints to defeat much larger foes, and the Romans have no plan or tactic against it. Under pressure from Rome, the governor sends the Ninth Legion north into Scotland under the command of Titus Flavius Virilus (West), their elite military army, to wipe out the Picts once and for all. That doesn't quite work out for them, as the Ninth is obliterated in an ambush that results in the capture of Titus and decimation of his soldiers in a battle bloodier than any you've seen in recent years. In the end, only seven soldiers are left, led by Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender). They decide to rescue Titus before returning home, all the while being hunted by the hunter and assassin Etain (Kurylenko), who has her own reasons for spilling Roman blood.

...Faster than him, anyway
While "Seven Centurions with Swords" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "Six Chicks with Picks", Centurion shares some similarities with Marshall's previous films. In seemingly all Marshall movies, a small group is cut off from all help and forced to fight the elements, each other and external forces in an attempt to get home, and Centurion is no different. Many of these men are damned to die never being able to see their homes or families again, as they are killed off one by one the closer they get to their homeland. Not all the soldiers are noble, either, and some downright villainous, and this thankfully leads to something of a mix of character types. But the thing it truly shares with it's predecessors is the blood flow. Marshall never shies from spilling blood, guts, or anything else in his battles, whether they be one-on-one or hundreds against hundreds. When someone, good or bad dies, you wince automatically, as the death is as brutal as you can expect from a Marshall film.

Not a zombie film, but from this shot you'd be forgiven to think so
The film, though similar in tone to Marshall's previous works, still manages to keep the tension high. Though the film is at it's heart a chase/action film, it doesn't feel samey and the audience doesn't feel like it's been sitting through the same sequence over and over. And any time Kurylenko is on the screen, that tension is tripled, as even playing a mute assassin she manages to convey with her mannerisms most of what you need to know to get the character, with what little else to know spoken of by others. Simply her presence is performance enough, and as a physical embodiment of revenge she's the real star of this film. Fassbender, before this best known as the Inglourious Basterds officer who couldn't count to three in German, is noble and strong as the film's lead. He comes across believably as a leader of men in dire circumstances, consumed with getting these soldiers home. Dominic West, best known (and amazing) as Det. Jimmy McNulty in the HBO series The Wire (The best show you've never seen, or in many cases ever heard of), has only a small role in this film but as a General who commands the respect of his men by leading them into the fight and will sacrifice anything for them, he works with his usual charismatic style. West is one of the best actors who hasn't made it big on the mainstream stage, and any chance you have to see him, you should take it.

They're not exactly "merry men"
It's a shame the film's secondary characters don't get as much presence as the film's stars. Far too often are characters confusable with one another, and it's not until after the scene is over that you realize who has died and who is still around, or which character committed a particularly dastardly deed. This isn't helped by the fact that most of these characters get precious little time for introspection, so we know very little about them before they are wiped from the slate of the film. The most recognizable of them creates his own problem, as while Noel Clarke is a talented actor, somehow a black Centurion seems a little too far-fetched to be believable. Marshall has stated that the film was never mean to be historically-accurate, but still. Are there any historians out there who can tell me whether this was at all feasible? Regardless, the handling of the film's cannon fodder could and should have had more time attributed to it. The best of them is actually Imogen Poots as Arianne, a Pict outcast that the survivors meet late in the film, with Liam Cunningham a close second as a veteran Roman soldier named Brick.

She just watched Quantum of Solace for the first time
The best thing about the film might be the moral ambiguity of it all. Though Dias is obviously an honorable man, and Etain more or less a monster (though justifiably so), the Romans are not necessarily the heroes of this tale. Though the Picts are shown as "tribal" and "barbaric" in their living styles as opposed to the "civilized" Romans, they almost certainly could be seen as the "good guys" from a different angle. After all, the Romans committed atrocities against the local British populace during their invasion and occupation in expanding their Empire. The Picts simply want to drive the Romans from their shores, to live free apart from the Empire. The legendary fate of the Ninth Legion is not so surprising when you consider the expansion of empires over the centuries, and their inevitable weaknesses from becoming stretched too thin. Getting back to the film, however, we still only have Dias to root for, and Etain to root against. That it could easily be the other way around is an interesting, and no doubt there's some who saw this movie thinking just that. In the end we're just hoping someone chops the head or arm of somebody else, to sate our apparent blood lust.

There's a LOT of blood in this film
It might not have been as good as Marshall's best film, The Descent, but Centurion was in my opinion well worth checking out. It's a shame when small imported films like this get overlooked for U.S. wide release, with Hollywood instead deciding to churn out their own story shortly afterward. I have no doubt that 2011's The Eagle will be nowhere close in quality to Centurion, despite it's assuredly larger budget and billions of camera filters to get the look "just right". It's a shame because Marshall is one of those directors who will never get any real attention from the mainstream until he makes some film about a far-east boy who finds the love of his life thanks to a corrupt quiz show (Sorry, Danny Boyle). But Marshall doesn't do that kind of film. He makes bleak, non-heroic action films in which the characters are often running away from danger instead of into the thick of it. And that's good enough for #7 on my Top 10 List. A little more character development would have gone a long way, but blood and guts and strong acting from all corners makes this not only one of this year's faves, but one of the year's more unappreciated flicks. It's not for everybody (Understatement of the year), but for those it appeals to, it is worth a watch.

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