Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Centurion: No Pax Romana Here

It is 117 A.D. and the Roman “conquest” of Britain has been a miserable, blood-soaked experience—for the Romans. Just ask Centurion Quintus Dias whom we first meet running for his life from a very ticked-off war party of Picts in Neil Marshall’s Centurion (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Posted to the most distant Roman outpost, Dias is miserable in Caledonian Britain (what is more or less Scotland today). Things only get worse when his fort is over-run by a Pict surprise attack. The sole survivor, Dias escapes his captors, making his way to what just became the newly Northern-most Roman outpost. Tired of taking a beating to his prestige back in Rome, the local governor commands General Virilus to hunt down the mysterious Pict leader Gorlacon with his vaunted Ninth Legion, to which Dias is now attached.

Virilus is not thrilled with his assignment, but he supposedly has the advantage of the services of Etain, a Pict tracker ostensibly civilized by the governor. Given the way her eyes smolder with hatred, following her into battle is probably a bad idea, but they do it anyway, with predictable results. Now Dias must lead the remnant of the Ninth as they try to rescue their revered General behind enemy lines.

Centurion is a fairly straight-forward historical hack & slash, with maybe a hint of the fantastical. At one point, Dias and his men find refuge with Arianne, a woman shunned by the Picts as a purported witch—not that she really is one. She just seems to know a lot about healing herbs. Neil (The Descent) Marshall definitely has a knack for gritty battle scenes, and the clever symmetry of his opening and closing scenes perfectly suits the story of ancient (if misplaced) heroism. Unfortunately, the film lags a bit in-between, with too many scenes of rock-climbing and limping through the Caledonian forests.

Michael Fassbender is one of the few actors working in film today with potentially movie star-like screen presence. Yet in Centurion, the grizzled badness of Dominic West’s Virilus somewhat outshines him. Still, he has some credible chemistry with Imogen Poots as Arianne the witch. Unfortunately, Ulrich Thomsen is a bland villain as Gorlacon (probably because the film is too conscious of its alleged modern parallels), while as Etain, former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko looks distractingly blue, almost like she walked out of Avatar. Oddly, the Centurion’s Romans are played by Brits, whereas the Britons are mostly played by Scandinavians, Slavs, and even the Belgian Axelle Carolyn.

Centurion’s craftsmanship is definitely above average for action films. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy’s dazzling vistas make the Caledonian mountains look like the Alps. It also boasts one of the cooler opening title sequences of the year. Still, its heavy-handed “occupiers” versus “insurgency” themes often sabotages the film’s momentum. Ultimately, it is an okay summer diversion, but it is effectively limited by its reluctance to definitively pick a side and stick with it. It opens Friday (8/27) in New York at the Angelika.

(Poster by British comic artist Simon Bisley)