I’ve seen it at last! “Centurion” has come to the booming metropolis that is Boston and is playing on exactly one screen (which is actually across the river in Cambridge.) At least it’s at the very cool eco-friendly, intellectually superior theater that gets all of the foreign and art-house flicks; the one frequented by adults who know how to behave at the cinema and without the sticky floors. Bonus! Yesterday afternoon, I made the pilgrimage. (Sorry Idris, you’ll have to wait until next week.)
As has already been documented on this blog, I’ve been looking forward to Centurion for quite some time and for a quite a few reasons. First, I’ve been a fan of Neil Marshall’s since 2002’s “Dog Soldiers”, not to mention I’m a huge fan of Michael Fassbender. I’m not going into a blow by blow or a typical review, but in mentioning Marshall’s first feature film I believe I’ve found a good jumping-off point.
I’ve mentioned Dog Soldiers before, in reference to where I first noticed Kevin McKidd. The film is a fresh take on the werewolf mythos that actually has a lot in common with Centurion. Both films are about the struggle of the underdog trapped behind enemy lines. In both cases, the “underdog” consists of the remains of what started out as a superior fighting force: in Dog Soldiers, a squad of highly trained British Army soldiers on tactical maneuvers in Scotland; in Centurion, an elite Legion of highly trained Roman soldiers, members of the occupying army in what would later become Scotland.
In both cases, we’re meant to root for the outnumbered few far from home whose only goal has become getting back to it, despite the fact that this cunning and resourceful handful was part of a larger force that was initially trying to wipe out the natives; (Even though in Dog Soldiers the natives were monstrous wolf-human hybrids and in Centurion they only painted their faces blue- they both were there first. Speaking of blue faces…I’m thinking this is where William Wallace got the idea. Or was it from Antoine Fuqua’s “Woads”*?) much the same way that we’re meant to root for the Cowboys vs the Indians in most American Westerns.
Centurion, just as Dog Soldiers was, is filled with Marshall’s trademark blood and gore plus the added bonus of the sounds of axe or sword crunching bone and spear piercing flesh. We also get the similar washed out color palette that makes everything seem that much more bleak and desolate and yet at the same time starkly beautiful, whether it’s the snow-capped Highlands or a Caledonian forest. (Actually the forests in the earlier film were in Luxembourg. I’m glad Marshall has graduated to using actual locations. Parts of The Descent and most of Doomsday were filmed in Scotland as well.)
Both films feature the great Liam Cunningham, (who also starred opposite Michael Fassbender in the exquisitely painful “Hunger”, as Fr. Moran) although unlike in Dog Soldiers, where his Capt. Ryan was a complete prick, he plays a veteran soldier with a sense of humor and capable of compassion, called ‘Brick.’
In fact there are darker takes on quite a few characters that first appeared in Dog Soldiers. “Spoonie” is replaced by Thax, Emma Cleasby’s Megan is replaced by Imogen Poots’ Arianne.
(Thax, Macros, Brick)
…wait…or is she replaced by Olga Kurylenko’s Etain? Elements of Megan’s story have been expanded and then divided up between these two characters. Having said that, I must point out that Etain is quite possibly the toughest, most ruthless female antagonist on film. If you throw in the fact that she does it all without saying a word, she wins hands down.
(Looks can be deceiving. There is nothing tender about what is going on here.)
Sean Pertwee’s Sgt Wells in Dog Soldiers is supplanted by Dominic West’s General Virilus. Both characters are “boysy” men’s men who command respect and inspire loyalty by being “of” their troops, not above them. Virilus is Wells on steroids.
I would have liked to have seen more of Dominic West’s General, but that’s purely selfish. This wasn’t his story. West did what was needed, which was to create a leader that the audience could believe would galvanize a small handful of soldiers into taking action on his behalf and set the plot in motion. Not only did he accomplish that (and look good doing it, even covered in blood and filth) in his few minutes onscreen, but his ‘presence’ permeated the rest of the film.
Which brings me to Michael Fassbender’s Quintus Dias. It is easy enough to compare this character to the luscious Kevin McKidd’s Cooper. Both characters exhibit resourcefulness and intelligence beyond their scripted stations. (Cooper is by rank a Private. Kept on the lowest rung of the ladder by his refusal to be blindly cruel for what he perceives to be the sake of it. Quintus is the son of a freed slave turned gladiator, but displays respect for his enemy by learning their language.) Both gain the trust of a local beauty, a loner either by choice or circumstance, who provides aid and comfort. Both characters are also the heart and soul of their respective films. If we don’t believe in either Cooper or Dias, we don’t believe in the road each man travels or care about the final result.
Again, Fassy’s character is a souped up version of his earlier counterpart. Physically, he takes much more of a beating than McKidd ever did, even in the latter’s climactic final fight scene.
(Fassbender didn’t look this buff in 300! Gaaaah!)
This film may not tax Fassbender’s acting muscles as much as it did his physical ones, but it may up his visibility quotient, which I am of two minds about. On the one hand, I’ve seen what happens when the rest of the world gets a hold of an actor I’ve long admired but is considered to be a “hidden gem” and frankly, I don’t like to share my toys. On the other hand, there is a part of me that DOES want everyone to know what I’ve known all along. Fassbender deserves to have a place at the A-List table, as long as we’re talking about the A-List that gets offered the best and juiciest scripts, working with the most talented directors and actors. (He can stay off of that “other” A-List. I personally don’t give a damn if he EVER meets Lindsey Lohan.)
Centurion has all of the elements that a good Saturday afternoon at the movies should have: lots of action, compelling drama with a hero worth believing in, spectacular visuals, rousing score, and an attractive cast. If it fails to find an audience in theaters, and frankly, that seems likely since it’s barely being released, I predict it will find the same kind of loyal cult following on dvd and later on cable television, as Dog Soldiers has done. It is, IMHO, an interesting take on the possible fate of the “lost” 9th Legion (and it managed to beat Kevin MacDonald’s “The Eagle”** to the punch. We’ll have to wait until 2011 before we find out which one seems more plausible.)
*from his “King Arthur”
**still hate that name change.