Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Neil Marshall's CENTURION has it all: action, history, scope, battles, beauty and brawn

If Neil Marshall isn't one of the best action directors working today (yes, I'm assessing him as the equal of those Hong Kong boys), I'd like to know who's any better?  On the basis of his newest bon-bon CENTURION, a lean and brawny, chase-and-survival thriller set in Britain in 117 AD (that's getting specific!), Marshall has gained entry into the pantheon of smart directors who put every penny of their relatively small budget up there on screen so we can revel in the look and feel of a time long past and a place that may not have existed (not quite like this, at least) but, for the length of its 97-minute running time, utterly convinces.

With what must have been a budget about one-tenth (or less)  of the over-baked, over-sold, overlong (155-minute) Gladiator, this director, shown at left, has crafted a film that's full of story, tension, irony and unavoidable parallels to our own sorry time, yet is economically told without sacrificing a bit of credibility, beauty or budget.  It appears that whenever something, anything -- a battle, a special effect, an all-stops-out performance -- was needed, Marshall made sure it was there.

From the beautifully conceived and executed opening credits, airborne yet oddly weighty, the movie promises you something special and then delivers the goods. The plot hinges, in brief, on Roman forces fighting a collection of savage tribes known as the Picts (new to me, but, hey, I ain't no historian).

When one particular legion is surrounded and then decimated -- in typical Marshall fashion: suspense, surprise, shock-and-awe (yeah, but  from someone and his crew who, this time, actually know what they're doing) -- its leader is captured and only a few straggling survivors are left. Those stragglers now must first save that leader and then somehow get away against, yup, all odds.

This writer/director -- of Doomsday, Dog Soldiers (the best werewolf movie of the past decade) and the Descent films (he wrote but did not direct the second) -- understands pacing and how, even in a tense, chase-thriller, we need a quiet scene or two for breath-catching.  He provides us this with a couple of really well-imagined and "felt" situations. In one, the stragglers get to know one another in a smart, believable fashion. In the other, a love interest is discovered (nicely limned by Imogen Poots, above, lately of Solitary Man), yet Marshall has the savvy to take things just so far, again smartly and believably, to the point of genuine sentiment but no sentimentality.

Actors must love to work with this guy. At least he certainly draws the best from each of his cast members here. In quick, sharp strokes that register strongly, characters are drawn as events tumble over each other --and then we quickly move on.  Our hero here is played by up-and-comer Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank, Eden Lake, Inglourious Basterds), shown running above, who is hardly recognizable, role to role. He's terrific once again: smart, genuine, decent, sexy and, oh, yes, heroic.

Equally fine is Dominic West, above (from the under-appreciated Punisher: War Zone), playing the General. This is a smaller role, but thanks to West's absolute grasp of how a leader commands via strength, power and, yes, love for his men, he captures first our respect and finally our caring.  You can easily understand why his men would sacrifice their lives in this man's charge.  Are there women in the movie? Of course, and they, too (two of them actually) span the gamut of heroine and villain. Yet even here Marshall allows us to understand and appreciate the motivations of his antagonist -- played by the rather petite Olga Kurylenko, from Quantum of Solace, here looking extremely strong and able as she discharges her duty below -- even while we continue to root for our protagonist.

The supporting cast is aces, with wonderful actors the likes of  Liam Cunningham (shown below, right, with Fassbender), JJ Feild, Ulrich Thomsen, Paul Freeman, Riz Ahmed and David Morrissey creating surprisingly full characters in very little time.  As for action, Marshall's ace-in-the-hole, it it simply great fun to follow his fight scenes. Whether they be full-fledged battles with hordes of extra (many of these perhaps done via CGI, but, if so, it sure fooled me) or man-to-man combat (and here, man-to-woman), Marshall arranges things in a manner that glues you to the screen, so swift, complicated yet still able-to-be-followed are his and his stunt/fight choreographer's moves.

Exciting, thrilling, occasionally funny and sometimes moving, Centurion is above all, great fun -- much of this due to the near-complete lack of pomposity on view, in front of and behind the camera.  Are you listening -- better yet, are you watching -- Gladiator (and other Hollywood sword-and-sandal-spectacle) makers and performers?

Centurion opens this Friday, August 27, in a limited, coast-to-coast release in twelve cities, with more to follow in the weeks to come. (In NYC, it's playing at the Angelika Film Center.) You can find all playdates, cities and theaters, here. This movie has also been available On-Demand for the past month or so, but having seen it on a large movie-theater screen, I can vouch for how very impressive visually it is in that particular venue.

All photos are from the film itself, except 
that of Mr Marshall, courtesy of

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