Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Centurion (2010)

They may take our lives,
but they will never take our eyeliner!

It's pretty clear by now that Marshall is perfectly happy making genre flicks that are heavily influenced (or in the case of Doomsday, brazenly plagiarised) from the beloved films of his youth, but a certain running theme is beginning to stick out at me. I think Neil Marshall might hate Scottish people. First you had Dog Soldiers, where the Scottish Highlands were little more than a terrifying, lycanthrope-infested wilderness. Then there was Doomsday, which suggested that, if left to their own devices, Scotland would revert to a Mad Max style post-apocalyptic hellscape within a few decades. I think The Descent was relatively free of Scot-bashing, unless those pasty underground mutants were supposed to be Scottish, which is debatable. Finally we have Centurion, where a small group of Roman soldiers suffer an onslaught of vicious, bloodthirsty Pict savages.

The film is based on the myth of the Ninth Legion, who were supposedly sent to Britain in 117 A.D. to suppress the Picts and never returned. Michael Fassbender plays the Centurion Quintus Dias, who is one of only a handful of survivors after a vicious Pict ambush in the Scottish Highlands leaves his entire Legion dead. The Picts capture their General, played by Dominic West, and after a failed rescue attempt the shrinking group of soldiers are forced to flee back to Britain. They are pursued by band of Picts, including a brilliant tracker named Etain, played by Olga Kurlyenko.

I guess it's a little like Apocalypto in that it takes an epic historical setting and uses it to tell a relatively small chase thriller, and like that film it's really fucking bloody. There's barely a few minutes without somebody getting decapitated, disembowelled or stabbed in the dick, often in slow motion. Sadly a lot of it is CG, which doesn't really have the same visceral impact. There's also a pretty crazy gross-out moment where they kill a deer and eat the half-digested vegetation out of it's stomach. I probably would have eaten the meat instead, but that's just me.

The idea of heavily-armed Imperialists pushing into unfamiliar territory and facing resistance from scrappy locals probably sounds pretty familiar (look at text upside down to reveal secret hint: bɐɹı). The parallels aren't something that's dwelled upon, but I did like how both sides of the conflict were fairly well represented. The Roman soldiers are a varied lot with different backgrounds and motivations, and the Picts are humanised without turning them into toothless Noble Savages. In a situation like this you are always going to side with the Romans, but the film doesn't let you forget that they're fighting for a pretty shitty cause.

I don't want to oversell this aspect to it, though. At it's core it's still a two-dimensional genre flick. The Picts are barely differentiated and the Romans are the typical war movie stereotypes (the brute, the joker, etc). There is a pretty good cast (David Morrissey, J.J. Feild) who do the best job they can, but there isn't a lot of dialogue and what is there is pretty ripe. A lot of the dramatic moments fall flat, especially the tragic backstory about Etain. She is also mute, which had me wondering whether it was a conscious character choice or a surreptitious dig at Kurlyenko's acting abilities.

Also, at about an hour into the film they awkwardly attempt to shoe-horn in a love interest. Imogen Poots plays a Pict woman who was banished from the tribe for practicing witchcraft (probably something to do with her unnaturally nice skin and teeth) so now she lives alone in the wilderness. She's no friend to the Picts or the Romans, but Quintus Dias charms her with his knowledge of the Pictish language. She is in the film for all of five minutes, but she must have made an impression because he falls deeply, madly in love and (spoiler alert) runs away at the end to live with her.

I think we all know by now that Marshall and his team have some serious technical chops, and here they turn out a really nice looking film on a relatively low budget. It borrows the gritty look of a lot of modern historical films, making everything dirty and bloody with all the colour leeched out of it. The cinematography is great, with a lot of sweeping helicopter shots of the heroes running through fields and snowy mountains. The fight scenes are well constructed and the editing is vastly improved over Doomsday, which I felt substituted frantic editing for good choreography.

I didn't lose my shit over this film, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's a little predictable and formulaic, but as a pure action film it works really well, striking a good balance between grittiness and entertainment. I also appreciate the mass amounts of blood and gore. I like how the political subtext hums along in the background with no elaboration, and unlike a lot of historical films it isn't a bladder-busting, butt-numbing three hour epic. Probably doesn't reach the heights of Dog Soldiers or The Descent, but it's a perfectly good film.

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