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

Dog Soldiers


Dog Soldiers

Never wolf down your food.

(2002) Horror (Artisan) Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson, Tina Landini, Craig Conway, Bryn Walters, Brian Claxton Payne, Ben Wright. Directed by Neil Marshall

 

If you were in the woods far away from civilization, where would the safest place to be? You would think among a troop of soldiers on training exercises. There are some things though an entire army wouldn’t even be able to protect you from.

Private Cooper (McKidd) looks to join the elite SAS unit and looks to have the skills to do it. However when he is ordered to kill a dog, he refuses. The commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham) shoots the dog himself and sends Cooper back to his unit.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, commanded by Sgt. Wells (Pertwee), is dropped into the Scottish highlands for training exercises. They’re supposed to attack a squad of SAS commandos but when they reach their encampment, the place has been torn to shreds. There are no bodies but plenty of bodies and bits of flesh and organ strew about. It looks like the scene of a massacre. There is just one survivor – Captain Ryan, who is grievously wounded and keeps muttering “there was only supposed to be one.”

Right about then the soldiers are attacked by unknown assailants. Corporal Bruce Campbell (Lockyer) is impaled on a tree branch and the rest of the squad make their way to an abandoned farmhouse with the help of a zoologist they encounter on the road, Maggie (Cleasby). They hole up there, thinking if they can hold out until morning the werewolves will revert to human form and they’d be safe.

Soon it appears that won’t be happening. One of the soldiers, Private Terry Milburn (Simpson) is abducted and their ammo is running low. It becomes obvious that they will need to find a way to escape before dawn or they just won’t survive.

Marshall has crafted an old-school kind of werewolf movie that eschews CGI for practical effects and with a script clever in its references to all sorts of movies, from Zulu to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Night of the Living Dead. That sounds like a bit of a mishmash (and it is in a way) but it actually works really well. The movie has a clever sense of humor that is going to appeal to not just the fanboy but the casual horror fan as well.

Marshall apparently has a pretty good sense of how military units operate – he’s gotten praise for getting that aspect right. He also has a good sense of how soldiers talk – not like cliché machines but with a wide swagger, a hefty dose of macho but also a sense of precision. Military units thrive on precise communications; they would be pretty unsuccessful if they weren’t efficient that way.

The movie was produced on the cheap; in that sense from time to time the lack of a budget shows through although for the most part the movie looks more expensive than it was. The cast is solid and talented (although Jason Statham was offered a part in the movie he had to decline to commitments to other films) and gets the military jargon down, not to mention the swagger. There are a few twists and turns (although you should be able to guess what the “mission” of the SAS really was, what the significance of the farmhouse is and what the secret of the werewolf clan is) and even better, plenty of visceral thrills to deliver the discerning horror film fan to hog heaven.

The movie failed to get theatrical distribution in the United States as distributors labeled it as “too British” which just goes to show you how stupid distributors can be (just check the box office receipts for Shaun of the Dead if you don’t believe me). It was initially shown on the SyFy Channel (and it still turns up on cable regularly) before getting a home video release, including a bare-bones Blu-Ray release a couple of years ago. That’s a shame; I think someday this will be recognized as a classic in the genre and given the respect and treatment it deserves. Until then, it can be our little hidden gem.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best werewolf films of recent years. Practical-effect werewolves rock. Reminiscent of Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London in tone. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheap production values sometimes show through.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of gore and lots of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set in Scotland it was actually filmed in Luxembourg.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Ledge