Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life

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The Last Legion


The Last Legion

"This island of Capri - I can't imagine anyone else ever wanting to visit. Why are you looking at me that way?"

(2007) Swords and Sandals Action/Adventure (Weinstein) Sir Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth, Aishwarya Rai, Thomas Sangster, John Hannah, Alexander Siddig, Peter Mullan, Kevin McKidd, Iain Glen, Rupert Friend, Nonso Anozie, Owen Teale, Harry van Gorkum, Robert Pugh. Directed by Doug Lefler.

With the success of Gladiator and 300, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing more sword-and-sandal epics coming our way. Stacked up against the two movies previously mentioned, The Last Legion doesn’t really belong in that kind of company. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be relegated to the avoid-at-all-costs list.

Romulus (Sangster) is a young boy, the son of the last female descendent of Julius Caesar. His male relatives have ascended to the throne of Rome left and right and have been assassinated. Rome is beset from without by angry Goths, led by Odoacer (Mullan), who has been denied what he believed was his rightful due as defender of the Empire by Orestes (Glen), Romulus’ arrogant father and regent, and from within by greedy, weak-willed Romans.

Orestes gets one of his finest generals, Aurelius (Firth) to be the boy’s bodyguard. Aurelius is less than thrilled about the assignment, but has sworn an oath to defend the boy to his last breath – Aurelius, not the boy’s. Orestes also sends Romulus’ tutor Ambrosinus (Kingsley) packing for having the temerity to encourage the boy to think for himself. That’s simply not what emperors of the known world do.

On the night of his coronation, Rome is sacked by the Goths. Odoacer’s hyperactive second-in-command, Wulfila (McKidd) kills Romulus’ parents and captures the boy. He’s all for killing the last Caesar, but Ambrosinus shows up at the last moment and persuades Odoacer to keep the boy captive – on the isle of Capri. Tough gig.

Aurelius, with boyhood friend Nestor (Hannah) and Theodorus (Siddig), the ambassador of the Eastern Empire, plot to get the kid back. Only a few of Aurelius’ men survived the Goth attack, so Theodorus sends his best warrior to assist. The best warrior turns out to be a woman named Mira (Rai). Together, she and Aurelius rescue the boy and Ambrosinus only to discover that the boy has found ex caliburnus, the fabled sword of Julius Caesar. However, things have changed when they get back to Italy and it looks like Romulus is going to need an army just to survive in this hostile world. There is a legion that has not yet switched allegiance to Odoacer; the fabled Ninth, also known as the Dragon Legion. They, however, are all the way in Britannia, a long journey. Wulfila, having been maimed in the rescue of Romulus, is also hot on the chase and breathing fire of his own.

When you read the plot on paper, it sounds terribly cheesy and in many ways, it is. In all honesty, if you go in and try not to think about historical accuracy too much and accept this as a bit of a fantasy grounded in a few facts, it’s actually not a bad piece of entertainment. Much of the story will seem a bit familiar, and there are clichés up the yin yang but the story was entertaining enough to keep my interest, and the performances solid enough to not strain the bounds of credibility. Kingsley looks a bit like a hippie in his outfit here, but Firth makes a terrific Roman. Rai, one of the most beautiful women on Earth and one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, is pretty hot as a warrior and shows some skills with a sword. Director Lefler cut his teeth on the “Hercules” and “Xena” TV shows so he knows what he’s about in this genre.

In all honesty, I was surprised. Considering that the movie got almost zero publicity during its theatrical release and had its release date pushed back several times – usually the sign of a bad movie – it’s a pretty entertaining. Don’t kid yourself – The Last Legion didn’t make anybody’s top ten lists, but you won’t leave the couch feeling disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Entertainment value. Lots of swordplay. Colin Firth. Aishwarya Rai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Script riddled with clichés. Takes a few liberties with history. Cheap CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle sequences and swordfights, but nothing gruesome. Overall, I’d say this is suitable for the entire family despite the PG-13 rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Doug Lefler used Thomas Sangster’s entire family as extras at various points in the film.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on an unreported  budget. I’m guessing the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bangkok Dangerous

Gladiator


Gladiator

Gladiators do battle...or is that the WWE?

(DreamWorks) Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Honsou, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, David Hemmings. Directed by Ridley Scott

When everything that we love is taken from us we have two choices. We can wallow in our pain and let it overwhelm us, or we can do everything in our power to take what revenge we can. That revenge may take the form of retribution, or merely of survival – of learning how to rebuild your life.

Maximus (Crowe) is a general in the Roman army, much beloved by his men. He has just completed a successful campaign in Germania and has the eye of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Harris). Aurelius is old and dying, and as happens with the old and the dying he is reflecting on the achievements of his life and has found them wanting. He wants to do the unthinkable – restore the Republic – and needs Maximus to maintain order and see to the transfer of power from the Caesar’s family to the senate, which Senator Gracchus (Jacobi) would like nothing more.

Maximus wants nothing more than to go home to Spain, to a farm with his wife and young son, and raise crops in peace. However, Aurelius’ plan doesn’t sit well with his son Commodus (Phoenix) who is heir apparent and would lose everything if Aurelius goes through with his scheme. Being “not a moral man” as his father describes him, Commodus kills his father and assumes the throne. He wants Maximus to support him but Maximus knows immediately what has happened when he sees Aurelius, whom he admired, dead in his bed and refuses. Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Nielsen) who has a thing for Maximus takes the better part of valor and supports her brother. So does Quintus (Arana), Maximus’ second-in-command who recognizes an opportunity when he sees it.

Commodus orders the execution of Maximus. Maximus begs Quintus to watch over his family, but Quintus tells him that his family will join him shortly in the afterlife. Maximus, knowing that time is of the essence, fights out of his execution and escapes but is badly wounded in the process. He races to get home but his wounds slow him down and he arrives to find his house burned and his family crucified. Maximus buries his family and collapses in despair.

He is collected by a passing slaver, and cared for by Juba (Honsou), an African slave. They’re all taken to an outlying province and sold to Proximo (Reed), a trainer of gladiators. Proximo was a former gladiator but he was given his freedom by Marcus Aurelius himself. Despite this, he resents the late Caesar because he did away with gladiator games in Rome, banishing them to the  provinces far away from the glittering center of the Empire.

Maximus at first wants no part of anything – no part of life, in fact. He just wants to hurry up and die so he can be with his family in the afterlife, but Commodus’ betrayal gnaws at him, worrying at him like a dog with a bone. Before he sees his family he must have his vengeance, and Proximo convinces him the best way to achieve that is to become Rome’s most famous gladiator, after which he will be freed and can then do what he must.

Since Maximus is fighting as “The Spaniard,” Commodus is unaware that Maximus is alive. By the time he finds out, Maximus is far too popular for him to kill – the mob that is Rome is not yet in love with Commodus, and he needs that love to maintain his hold on the Empire. The dream of Republic that Marcus Aurelius once had is still in the air, held by Lucilla and Gracchus. They hatch a plot to break Maximus out of the gladiator’s quarters and take him to his army, which he can then lead into Rome to enforce Marcus Aurelius’ dying wish. Can a slave, a gladiator, take on an entire empire and hope to win?

This was the best movie of 2000, in the eyes of the Academy (which gave it the Best Picture Oscar) and in the eyes of this critic. Director Ridley Scott resurrects the swords and sandals genre, giving it new life. CGI recreates the glory of Rome, creating magnificent vistas of Coliseum and Senate. This isn’t Rome as it was so much as we would like it to have been, but that suffices.

That said, the cinematography is curious for this movie. At times, it seems the entire movie has been filmed in overcast conditions with badly overexposed stock. I suppose that’s part of the film’s overall look in an attempt to create a period, but it just seems unnecessary to me. I guess I’m a simple kinda guy at heart.

Nothing wrong with the performances here though. Crowe and Phoenix are magnificent as antagonists; Crowe, on a roll to becoming one of the best actors in the world, is expected to do this kind of quality but what was surprising is that Phoenix held his own and at times, outdid Crowe. Still, Crowe won a Best Actor Oscar that year while Phoenix received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oliver Reed and Richard Harris certainly could have been considered for the same nominations as well.

In many ways this was one of the first iconic movies of the 21st century. Given the note-perfect score co-composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (she the voice of the magnificent but much-missed world music group Dead Can Dance) and the opening battle scene which is one of the most impressive ever filmed, it’s no wonder. While some critics thought this overblown and bloated, over-relying on CGI and brutal gladiatorial sequences, audiences adored this movie and so did I. It’s Entertainment with a capital “E” and deserves to be treated as such.

WHY RENT THIS: An essential movie from the past decade, with star-making performances by Crowe and Phoenix.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The cinematography is a bit mannered and some of the violence is a little too Peckinpah for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of gore and violence, as well as some sexuality make this a bit brutal for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oliver Reed had a massive heart attack with three weeks left to film and passed away. The remainder of his scenes was shot with a body double, with Reed’s head inserted digitally.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has an extensive group of features on this two Blu-Ray disk version, including a documentary on the historical basis of various elements of the film, a History Channel special on Roman gladiators, and a feature on abandoned and deleted sequences and why they never made it to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh