Dueling Centurions: The Conclusion




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After much anticipation…seriously, what seemed like years of anticipation, and in fact, the first post I did about it was 24 August 2009, I finally saw The Eagle (of the Ninth).


I wish I could leave it there. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else still planning to see it and everyone should be allowed to make their own judgments, but I need to get this out and move on.

I’m disappointed on a number of levels, not the least of which is the amount of screen time given to Mark Strong. When production began on the film and details started to be released, it was revealed that Strong would be a ‘good guy’, in and of itself enough to cause a flutter of excitement given his recent spate of villains. But by the time he actually shows up in this film, I had forgotten he was in it. He has one good scene, albeit with an American accent, and then disappears. (I’ll say no more on that score.) All I can think is “what a waste”. 

Seriously, why cast an actor of Strong’s caliber if you aren’t going to give him anything to do? (Sorry, climbing out of the mist looking menacing is not enough.) Director Kevin Macdonald might as well have cast Dimitar Berbatov*. I have to wonder if the rest of Guern (Strong’s character) didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, along with the rest of the source material’s title.

Another actor I was looking forward to seeing was Douglas Henshall. I completely forgot about him until I saw the credits. Where the hell was he? Supposedly he was someone called “Cradoc”, but I’ll be damned if I know what that was and I certainly didn’t recognize him. (Oh well, I’ll have to wait for dvd to find him, since I’m not spending another $11.50 to do it.)

I still don’t get Channing Tatum’s appeal. I do realize that I’m not his target audience, which seems to consist of the teenage girls who swooned over him in GI Joe and Dear John, and who will no doubt be the core group of The Eagle’s ticket buyers. He’s not the worst actor I’ve ever had to endure, he’s just kind of…meh. What’s worse, is that he brought down Jamie Bell, who is a good actor, to his level. (And was it just me or were their matching ears a little disconcerting?)

Okay, now that I’ve gotten all of that bitching out of my system, I can, hopefully, discuss the film in a somewhat intelligent manner.

In the context of comparing the two recent films dealing with the infamous “lost legion” of the Roman army in ancient Britain, there is, JMHO, no comparison.

Both films take place in 2nd century Britain, north of Hadrian’s Wall in what is now Scotland. Both films make great use of the natural landscape and have moments of stunningly beautiful cinematography.  While Centurion managed to make sweeping vistas of the snow covered highlands breathtaking, The Eagle made the country look exceedingly stark and harsh. One thing, though, that I do not understand, is the propensity of film-makers to make one of the most gorgeous places on earth (Scotland)  seem so bleak, like it exists in perpetual winter. 

Both are tales of natives vs invaders, much like American cowboys and Indians westerns. In Centurion, the invaders were the underdogs trapped behind enemy lines, ostensibly trying to rescue their captured leader, but who ultimately just wanted to get out and get home.  In The Eagle, the invaders purposefully crossed over into enemy territory, this time to get back a captured symbol of not just leadership, but the superiority of Rome and her army. Again, the tension supposedly supplied by the question of whether they would make it back alive.

Herein lies the rub. In both cases we are asked to root for the Romans as “the good guys” and care about their mission and their survival, just as we do for the cowboys. The difference is that I did buy into that in Centurion, I did not in The Eagle. I didn’t feel any of it. I blame most of that on the lead’s lack of charisma (probably not fair to compare him with Michael Fassbender in this or any context) and his seeming inability to generate empathy, not to mention the fact that I did not perceive any chemistry between Tatum’s Marcus Aquila and Jamie Bell’s Esca. Unfortunately, the entire movie hangs upon this relationship.

By trying to tell the story of what may have happened to the lost Eagle of the 9th Legion while at the same time creating a ‘buddy’ picture, director Kevin Macdonald fails to do justice to either one.  We’re meant to believe that Esca would feel so honor bound by one simple act on the part 0f Marcus that he would forget about not only all of the atrocities and horrors committed on his people as a whole, but his own family in particular.  I didn’t buy it for a second and could see no reason why Bell’s character wouldn’t kill Tatum’s in his sleep and wear his skull for a hat.

And without revealing too much, I just have to say that that “21st century bromance” ending would have jerked me out of the moment…had I been in it in the first place.

In fact, the only characters I did believe were Donald Sutherland’s Aquila, Ned Dennehy’s Seal Chief and Tahar Rahim’s Seal Prince. The latter was able to do more in his few scenes, with just his dark eyes burning out of his mud covered face, than Tatum did with an entire movie revolving around his finely chiseled features.

Centurion was a naturalistic hard R, while The Eagle was like a bloodless Howard Hawks western that worked hard at maintaining its PG-13. Somewhat understandable given the target audience of the source material and the one the makers were hoping to cultivate with the film, but basically it boils down to how much fun I had watching Centurion and how badly I just wanted The Eagle to be over.


(out of 5)

*Mark Strong is often said to resemble either actor Andy Garcia or Manchester United forward Dimitar Berbatov

Dueling Centurions- pt 2

With the US release still scheduled for February 11, we are finally starting to get clips and pics from The Eagle (of the Ninth*)

Courtesy of Yahoo Movies comes a pretty good "Behind-the-Scenes" clip.

Despite the fact that I am ambivalent at best about the lead, I’d probably see this even without the prospect of watching Mark Strong play a "good guy." (And at least it sounds like Mark Strong in the above clip. For some reason (which I cannot figure out and have been able to find no reference to) he sounds like he’s been dubbed in the trailer.

Listen for yourself (trailer from Focus Features):

As I posted when discussing Centurion, it remains to be seen which of the two is a better take on the story of the lost 9th Legion of Rome. Centurion was not well received by critics, although I enjoyed it for what it was…plus you know, Fassbender. Hopefully, with the release of The Eagle, those who still haven’t seen it will be tempted to pick up Centurion on dvd.

Centurion: Bloody Good Saturday Matinee!

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.

(Virilus-NOT moshing)

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.