Though I will happily admit to a bias against the UK film industry that might make any patriots passing through want to throw me out of the country, Shades of Caruso is a big supporter of British filmmaker Neil Marshall, as I mentioned during this review of his third movie, Doomsday. All of my positive feelings towards Marshall are included there, where I praise him for his sly sense of humour, his sense of pace, his love of action cinema history, and his technical know-how. Doomsday may not have set the world alight, and it may have been damned by faint praise from even those critics who enjoy action cinema, but even if it’s not a patch on The Descent — probably my favourite British film of the last decade — I maintain it’s a thoroughly entertaining movie, well worth everyone’s time and patience.
Marshall’s latest, Centurion, is a step back, unfortunately. It revolves around Quintus Dias (Michael “Abs of Steel” Fassbender), a Roman Centurion stationed at the very Northern edge of the Roman Empire, on a line that defends against guerrila attacks from the Picts. Any attempt to invade Scotland/Caledonia has failed by this point, meaning Dias has been stationed there for over two years, long enough to learn the language of his foe. After being captured during an assault on the fort, Dias escapes and meets up with the Ninth Legion, who have been instructed to bring the battle to the Picts instead of merely holding the line. Their secret weapon is a Pict traitor, Etain — played by a mute and scary Olga Kurylenko — who promises to guide them to their enemy. Suffice to say, this does not go according to plan, and soon Dias is left in the company of a small band of Roman soldiers, who are forced to battle their way back to the line before the landscape, wildlife, and indigenous people of Scotland kill them all.
The tale of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance is so low on detail that it is ripe for exploration and redefinition, even more so than other infamous historical tales which have been picked over and explained in greater detail. I’m sure no two tales of the Ninth Legion will be the same, while the battle of Thermopylae leaves far less wiggle room. Marshall has said, in interview, that he fully intended to pitch Centurion as a movie in the same epic mould as Gladiator and 300, though on a much smaller budget. To be honest, though it does feel of a part with those movies, he still seems to be primarily channeling the movies he grew up with. If I were to pitch this movie to a studio, the frame of reference would be Aliens meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Warriors meets Southern Comfort.
Those last two films are key to figuring out what makes the best moments of Centurion work so well. It’s not to Ridley Scott or Zack Snyder/Frank Miller that Marshall owes the greatest debt. The small scale, slow-burning pace and quick, brutal action scenes make this feel more like a Walter Hill movie than anything else I’ve seen in a long time, as the small band of survivors bond and then race through hostile territory with a group of Pict hunters on their tail the whole way. As in many of Hill’s movies the group is made up of badasses and cowards who look out for each other, speak as little as possible, and make quick decisions when backed into a corner. Selling this as an epic is a non-starter, no matter how many aerial shots of macho men running over hills take up the latter half of the movie. The best and most interesting moments echo those clenched-fist ’80s classics, with the big action finale being a well-choreographed and exciting brawl, not a tedious FX blowout between two enormous armies. The decision to spend time getting to know the characters in the otherwise slack mid-section of the movie pays off and makes these showdowns more involving, just as it did in Hill’s films.
Unfortunately, while Marshall borrows the character dynamics and punchy action-style from a master, he also borrows (intentionally or unintentionally, I do not know) his visual template from Marcus Nispel’s woeful Pathfinder, delivering a tedious palette of cold blues, washed-out greens, and the occasional fiery orange. It’s a relief that Marshall doesn’t borrow Nispel’s other awful visual trick: seemingly endless slow-motion action sequences that make your average John Woo dovegasm look like the last ten minutes of Speed Racer. His action scenes play out fast, brutal, and gloriously gory, with axe-to-face being one of his favourite visual motifs. Nevertheless, those miserable colours wear on the eyes: by the end of the movie you’re glad every time a fire is lit just to give your senses a break from the monotony. Admittedly, that could have something to do with the terrible projection at the Cineworld in the West End’s chaotic Trocadero centre — a building where good movies go to die.
The pace of the movie is off as well, slackening to a crawl once the movie turns into an extended chase sequence between the surviving Legionnaires and the vicious Picts. By the time three of our heroes show up at the hut of an exiled Pict (Imogen Poots, sadly without the awesome-name-assistance of her 28 Weeks Later co-star Mackintosh Muggleton), the tension has almost entirely dissipated. It never really recovers, with even a terrific final showdown — featuring some total badassery from Liam Cunningham — feeling like an afterthought. Considering how strongly Marshall has ended his previous movies, this is an unwelcome surprise, though I’m not sure how well a chase movie works when played out on such a large geographical canvas. Claustrophobia and a sense of forward propulsion tends to make these things work better: The Warriors works beautifully because of the gang’s progression through a well-defined New York City towards a definite endpoint. In contrast, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used this plot and a similar landscape to great effect as it was more about the passing of an age than about action and pace, with several digressions from the chase plot before it kicks in again at the end. Centurion includes some of the notes of George Roy Hill’s movie, and these work well enough, but they betray that original tone of excitement without really adding anything else to the tale.
While some of Marshall’s directorial choices irked, it’s worth praising him for the stuff he got completely right. Most importantly, he pitched the tone at exactly the right level of seriousness: there’s no irony or knowingness here. He’s helped by an excellent cast, who treat the subject matter with sufficient gravitas to give the drama enough extra heft to carry it through the regrettable second act longueurs. The litmus test for this is Dominic West’s performance, which completely dials down the godawful hamminess he showed in Punisher: War Zone and 300. Though he’s not in the movie much, his turn as badass Virilus is good enough that you wish he was onscreen throughout. Ulrich Thomsen chooses to play Gorlacon, king of the Picts, as a quiet man, devoid of blustering histrionics. It’s a choice that pays off later in the movie when you realise the Picts are not the villains of the piece, though his hunters are to be feared. Kurylenko’s mute killer is a memorable foil for our heroes, ably backed up by the equally menacing Dave Legeno and Axelle Carolyn, while Paul “Belloq” Freeman shows up and makes the most of his screentime as the slippery British governor Agricola.
It’s the band of Roman survivors that carry the movie, though. Other than Quintus Dias, the most visible are Bothos and Brick, two lightly sketched characters that are given life by David Morrissey and Liam Cunningham: very clever casting right there, as both actors excel at humanising the otherwise underwritten soldiers. Noel Clarke is surprisingly good as the marathon runner Macros, again making the most of his scant screentime, and JJ Feild deserves praise for selling the duplicitous nature of Thax, even though the writing on that character is a little suspect. Without getting into spoilers, I’m not sure if his under-developed character was a fault of rushed writing or unavoidable editing issues. Whatever it is, the importance of Thax to the plot engine is underplayed a bit too much. It’s one of the main problems with the final act, which is a mixture of mechanical contrivance and fortunate happenstance, all of which leads to a heavily signposted denouement. A shame, when the rest of the movie had played with our expectations so well.
Nevertheless, many of the flaws of Centurion are easily forgotten thanks to the conviction of Michael Fassbender, who really really really should be an enormous star by now. His work as the unblemished hero is strong enough to power the movie past its problems, and proves he can carry an action movie with ease. Though Quintus Dias is a relatively humourless individual (in the classic Hill mode), Fassbender’s charisma and commitment to the role should win audiences over. Marshall is a canny man, and should be commended on getting these serious performances from his cast and leading man, but their good work highlights some script problems. Though his aversion to bombast is notable, his decision to hit certain script beats as delicately as he does is peculiar. Early on we find out that Dias’ father was a gladiator who won his freedom, a point that is a key to his character but is never mentioned again. While I commend Marshall for not ramming this fact down our throats with further exposition, it’s a character element that isn’t put into play thereafter, even though it could make the final scenes of the film more resonant. It’s a shame to see Fassbender not get to play out a heavily-accented arc, even if that would require him to shoot beyond the movie’s often measured tone.
It makes me wonder if we’re seeing Marshall’s own final cut, or something mandated by producers. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happened, as the film has already been treated pretty shoddily. Getting to see it was harder than expected, as it is currently only showing on eleven screens in London, and only one in the West End: the cinematic dumping ground that is the Cineworld Trocadero. Meanwhile, Cemetary Junction and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife both get a 42-screen release through London. If this were the middle of the summer season I could understand a small-scale action movie being released on a few screens, but it was released a week before Iron Man 2 come out. That’s a week where it might have done better business if it were promoted with any kind of effort: what it got was a few invested nerd-sites carrying interviews with Marshall and a quick bit on Sky Movies’ 35mm. There’s an audience out there for this kind of thing, though predominantly male. Yesterday there were only two women in the room preventing it from becoming a total sausage-fest. The UK Film Council backed the movie in production, but as is often the case they have no say in how widely it gets distributed, which just leaves Pathé to do the work. I don’t know why they decided this small release was a good idea: maybe they have an amazing algorithm that explains it perfectly. At least it’s getting better treatment by passionate promoters in the States.
Considering my praise is faint, why would I worry about its treatment in the UK? Despite reservations, I would still recommend it: Marshall’s action scenes are effectively staged, the cast are superb, and the location shooting generates an impressive atmosphere of desolation. Even more importantly, I’m glad that Marshall is continuing to make movies in the action genre that are inextricably tied to British history and culture, and think this is something that audiences and filmmakers in the UK would appreciate and respond to. By now you would expect that Marshall would decamp to America, and yet he stays and makes two quintessentially British action movies that nevertheless have a production gloss and editing style that mimics that of our American cousins. News that he is making Burst with Sam Raimi suggests he’s finally been lured away, but his next movie after that is possibly the most British thing he could possibly do: adapting The Professionals for the big screen. Fingers crossed he doesn’t cast Danny Dyer as Bodie.
Marshall seems to be a believer in the potential of the British film industry, something I have a very hard time with when much of it has so little ambition, or relies too heavily on the usual period trappings or the same old source material. It grieves me to hear that the excellent Andrea Arnold is making yet another adaptation of Wuthering Heights, though — as Daisyhellcakes pointed out to me — there’s more than a good chance that Arnold will really be able to play up the narrative complexity and bleak atmosphere, avoiding the two awful extremes of tourism industry video or sub-gothic Twilight homage. Most other truly talented British filmmakers are getting out of here and doing great work elsewhere, but Marshall is sticking to his guns, taking tropes from US films and reworking them to tell British stories for a British audience. It’s a commitment that is to be commended even when the results are not entirely successful, and to see this latest project rushed into a handful of screens just to have some critic quotes to put on the DVD is utterly disheartening.