Friday, December 9, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Centurion (2010)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

It's the year 117. The Roman conquest of Britain is going rather badly. Rome has been forced to a standstill by the Pictish tribes under their king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), because her military isn't able to adapt to the guerrilla fighting techniques of her enemy. In a desperate last attempt at winning the war and saving his position, governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send the 9th legion under general Virilus (Dominic West) north to find and kill the Pictish king.

The only additional help Agricola gives Virilus is the female, tongue-less tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko). This turns out to be a costly mistake. Etain leads the legion into a trap, and so its first contact with the enemy remains its last. Most of the men are slaughtered, Virilus captured and only a handful of Romans (like Liam Cunningham and Micky from Doctor Who - yes, we are in the usual "all Romans spoke with various UK accents" territory here) escape with their lives. Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who had just escaped Pictish captivity, decides to lead the survivors into the Pictish camp to free their general.

That plan doesn't work out too well. Virilus stays in Pictish hands and one of Quintus' men - without any of the other Romans realizing it - murders Gorlacon's little son. The soldiers manage to flee and begin a long and difficult trek back into their territory, having to survive the wilderness as well as repeated attacks by Etain and a small band of Picts who are following them to avenge the king's son.

People who disliked Neil Marshall's Doomsday (and really, what's wrong with you?) will probably not like the director's new movie much better. Sure, Centurion is a bit more thoughtful and intellectually ambitious than Marshall's last movie (which doesn't say too much if you keep in mind that Doomsday seemed mostly interested in being awesome dumb fun, more Italian than any Italian post-apocalypse movie ever made), but it is still more interested in action and testosterone poisoning than in being subtle.

Centurion has a few things to say about how the systematic violence of warfare in the name of empire produces said empire's worst enemies, who in turn perpetrate their own acts of violence which in turn lead to new retribution and so on and so forth, with everyone's deeds of slaughter done for very good reasons. Gorlacon for example had begun his fight against the Romans after they had killed his first child, and Etain was driven into insane violence by being the victim of Roman rape and torture. Unfortunately, the film doesn't put as much emphasis on these elements as it probably could. Although Marshall makes sure his audience understands that violence and empire are Very Bad Things that will only lead to more dying and suffering, he still won't stop himself from revelling in at least the violence. So his film is full of scenes of intense, blunt, bloody violence, staged in scenes as exhilarating as they are brutal, subtly choreographed not to look too much like it, not evoking the dance of a martial arts movie but something less pretty and more visceral.

And the violence here is so well done that it's hard to blame Marshall for losing himself in it. There is something to be said for the handful of films that try to put something like the historical adventure stories of the pulps on screen and it's the preference for the cutting and the slashing before the thinking is very much a part of that genre you can't escape.

The actors are doing fine jobs throughout, even though they are hampered by sometimes less than satisfying dialogue (note to scriptwriters: never use the word "she-wolf" unironically) and understandably basic (it's just this sort of film), yet sufficient, characterization. Poor Michael Fassbender also has to do some overblown and completely unnecessary voice-over that is only there to add bathos the film doesn't need and tell us things we are seeing on screen anyway, in the great tradition of useless voice-overs throughout film history. It's not the only time its script lets Centurion down a little. Especially the ending seems a like it was done in short-hand and - for once in this film - more out to prove a point about the despicableness of the concept and practice of empire while still giving at least one of the characters a happy end than to make for a truly satisfying (or depressing) and logical conclusion. This is one of the rare cases where I would have preferred a film to be ten or even twenty minutes longer just to let its ending feel less hasty.

One the more positive side, Centurion's script also does a few relatively clever things that demonstrate that Marshall's not going through the motions of action movie scripting like a machine. Those are never big things the film is pointing out at us, but I still found it nice that (for example) the character who is set up (after a frighteningly racist introduction as a professional runner) to be the "black guy who only looks out for himself and will get killed by trying to pull one over his friends" isn't actually going in that direction at all and instead cynically killed off when he is going against that particular annoying archetype. It's the sort of thing that doesn't sound like much, but put half a dozen moments like this into your historical action movie script like Marshall does here, and you suddenly have something that feels specific and sometimes even a little human instead of automatic and generic.

Friends of bleak nature photography will also have a field day with the film's beautifully photographed outdoor locations in Hampshire and Scotland. The desolation of the locations gives the film a mood befitting the grimness of what's happening in them, sometimes pulling the brutal fighting into the direction of the dream-like, more often lending it a feeling of particularity, of everything we are seeing happening in a real place instead of the imagination. After this, I'd walk miles to see a nature documentary shot by Marshall and his cinematographer Sam McCurdy.

All criticism aside, I had a lot of fun with Centurion. Despite its flaws, the film is as physically exhilarating as movies come, beautiful, and less dumb than it could get away with. That it's also not always as successful at being clever as it could be is a problem, but not one big enough to ruin the movie, or the fun.

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