Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Axelle Carolyn, Ulrich Thomsen, Imogen Poots, Liam Cunningham
Directed by Neil Marshall
I may be in the minority, but I absolutely adore every frame of Neil Marshall’s Doomsday. Sure, The Descent is among the very best cinematic reasons to be terrified of the dark and Dog Soldiers just so happens to be the greatest werewolf movie of the last ten years, but it’s the delirious amalgamation of Mad Max 2 and Escape from New York that really made me want to sing Marshall’s praises from the mountaintop.
His latest film, Centurion, has finally reached the United States, and while it functions a bit outside the confines of the horror genre, this historical adventure is a rollicking good time, complete with enough sheer brutality to satiate the director’s most ardent fans. But there’s more to commend than just the liberal doses of violence and brutality. Marshall has stacked his production with a strong cast, stunning cinematography by his regular DP Sam McCurdy and lavish production design by Simon Bowles (another repeat partner) that boosts the authenticity in a way that puts some Hollywood productions to shame (with a fraction of the budget to boot).
The story concerns a handful of Roman soldiers who find themselves stranded behind the enemy lines of a Celtic tribe of savages called the Picts. As they try and make their way back to the nearest Roman garrison, they’re pursued by a vengeful group of warriors who’ve sworn to hunt them to their death. Marshall draws obvious inspiration from The Warriors (so much so that Walter Hill is thanked in the end credits) without ever becoming derivative. His film shares some rough similarities with everyone’s favorite gang of Coney Island badasses, but he infuses the story with a radically different tone and feel that’s given further distinction by its flirtation with actual history (i.e., the historical disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion). Centurion is essentially one long chase scene, and the story is well complemented by Chris Gill's rapid-fire editing to create a film whose entire look and feel matches the plot, sustaining a poetic rhythm in both execution and design.
But none of it would’ve worked had Marshall not stacked the deck with a cast of very talented actors. The film doesn’t slow down long enough for us to spend much time with these guys, but the broad strokes with which they’re painted give them a strong enough sense of person – further fleshed out by casting solid performers in each role. Michael Fassbender has both the charisma and likability to lead this band of haggard survivors across hostile terrain with the grim responsibility of his burden always lingering on his face. Dominic West has limited screen time as fierce Roman General Virilus (even the name is manly!) whose bravado inspires loyalty in his men while Liam Cunningham stands out as the salty old dog with some of the most crowd-pleasing lines but also some quieter moments that make him a character worth rooting for.
Olga Kurylenko is the resident villainess, a feral tracker whose bloodlust is motivated exclusively by revenge. Her character is without a tongue, which means Kurylenko doesn’t say a single word, instead managing an imposing presence through rage-laden eyes. And she walks the walk, too - obliterating foes with a flurry of vicious and believable fight scenes. More importantly, she never becomes a one-dimensional antagonist. Even at her coldest there are traces of humility and remorse in her actions; Kurylenko succeeds in creating a character of depth – no small feat here. Alongside her is Axelle Carolyn as a Pictish marksman who unleashes some nasty carnage courtesy of a bow and arrow. She handles the physicality of the role with as much weight and believability as Kurylenko, effortlessly handling the action reins in one particularly brutal and bloody fight to the death. Marshall is never afraid of putting his female stars through the physical paces, and considering his successful track record (Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza in The Descent and Rhona Mitra in Doomsday), it’s not hard to understand why.
What I really like about Marshall’s continued choice of actors is that he remains a firm believer in subtle performances. One of Doomsday’s best moments comes when Malcolm McDowell asks Rhona Mitra what she has ever lost in life. Instead of a typical long-winded retort, Marshall cuts back to Mitra’s expressive eyes as she processes the tragedy without saying a word. And there’s more of that happening throughout Centurion. Marshall’s characters aren’t always compelled to say what they’re thinking, and the internalized performances of his cast do the kind of heavy lifting that makes things both more interesting and textured.
Centurion is a rough and tumble action flick, and Marshall doesn’t hold anything back when it comes to carnage, striking the perfect balance between the believable and fantastical. People are outright obliterated by axes, arrows, pikes and swords in the grisliest of ways in order to effectively place the viewer amidst the vivid chaos. But Marshall isn’t too straight-faced to have a little fun while he’s splattering the red stuff around – like when someone is slammed full-force into a tree, only to have his skull explode into bone fragments and gore! As expected, the violence is largely of the CGI kind, but Marshall’s handling of it is deft – cutting away just before one’s eye can fully detect it.
With Centurion, Marshall is 4/4 when it comes to his filmography. This one was built for the big screen (which, admittedly, I haven’t yet experienced – mine was a high definition rental on Xbox Live). If you have the means to catch this in theaters, do it. While my setup is definitely optimal, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was robbing myself of some of the film’s epic grandeur by watching it in my living room. It’s a thrilling adventure and, after this summer of half-baked and instantly forgettable ‘blockbusters’, exactly what we need to get our blood flowing again.
4 out of 5
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