Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 01, 2010 12:46 pm 
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A long bloody run through the snow

Neil Marshall is a member of what's been called the "Splat Pack," a half dozen directors of the new breed of bloody, ultra-violent horror flicks. Centurian, accordingly, is about people getting beheaded and behanded, their throats slashed or their limbs lopped off, anything that would kill a guy while making lots of blood gush, spurt, or go splat. However, this does not occur at a cabin in the woods or a decrepit Victorian manse. This is not modern but ancient Splat. It's an historical tale of almost real events, so far as anything is almost known about the Picts of ancient Britain. Dealing with them makes Marshall a successor to H.P. Lovecraft and Rudyard Kipling, or perhaps more closely to the pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard. The result is not as edgy or classic as Marshall's 2005 claustrophobic all-female trapped-in-a-cave horror movie, The Descent, or as lousy as his 2008 Doomsday. Maybe it's as good as his rousing 2002 nightmare-in-the-Scottish wilderness film Dog Soldiers. Hand it to Marshall: he delivers something different every time, while always promising breakneck action and bloody chills.

The basis for Centurion is something that happened maybe around when this movie is set, 117 A.D. The Roman governor of England, Agricola (Paul Freeman), wants to put down the unruly consortium of northern tribes known as the Picts, and sends out the Ninth Legion under General Titus Virilus (Dominic West). They get slaughtered, and the movie's only really memorable scene is how. They cluster in a valey, told not to budge, and as they stand their ground, the Picts roll down huge balls of fire that kill them. All that remains of this Roman legion is a handful of men played by very good, if, not so famous, actors. There's Bothos (David Morrissey), Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who's the son of a gladiator, and a guy named Brick (Liam Cunningham) and they're all going to get picked off by Picts, all except the lean and determined Quiintas Dias, whose fate, here, is to wind up just barely escaping being shot down like the black hero at the end of Romero's Night of the Living Dead, but sneaking off to be with a mellow Pict girlfriend whose own people have disowned her. Cunningham and Fassbinder have worked together before, in a long intense meeting that's at the heart of Steve McQueen's scorching Irish rebel movie, Hunger, where Fassbinder plays Bobby Sands and Cunningham is a priest who debates him. If you've seen that and Fassbinder's edge-of-the-seat turn in Inglourious Basterds and his disturbingly appealing child molester in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, you'll know that these days Fassbinder is a good reason for watching any movie at all, even a Splat one. If this sounds too bloody for your blood, the seven films he has in the works look very appetizing. They include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Wuthering Heights, X-Men, a turn as Carl Jung, At-Swim-Two-Birds (Flann O'Brien's hilarious Irish classic), and in the future, an unnamed Jim Jarmusch project.

Centurion is lean, mean stuff, not for squeamish girls, and there's not much to it, really, but it's true to its tight, stoical genre, at least till Quintas Dias and the blond Arianne (Imogen Poots), begin making googly eyes at each other. That's pretty silly, and won't save the movie for softies, though having this union of the ethnics and the imperials helps soften the otherwise somewhat off-key message that the bad guys in the story are the ancestors of the people who made the film.

Centurion isn't short on kooky anachronisms, like the way everybody talks and the ladies' vamp makeup. It's a man's world, despite Ariadne, and as a signal of that we have the most evil person on screen, the scary Pict tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko), who works for the Romans, till she doesn't. Apart the occasional bit of dialogue and Fassbinder's voiceover, the bulk of the flick is a relentless and fast cross-country chase with the Picts (and the filmmakers) using a whole cornucopia of murder methods to eliminate the Romans, who besides those mentioned include the bold Thax (J.J. Feild), a fast African runner, Macros (Noel Clarke); the expert Greek marksman Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas); and the cook Tarak (Riz Ahmed), from the Hindu Kush. Thus does Marshall, who also wrote, introduce variety into what otherwise would be little more than a video game. He might have thought up some more interesting interludes. Experts in this genre more knowledgeable then I consider this good stuff, but, for its failuare to vary incidents and go into more depth about characters, a a cut or two below Gladiator and 300. I'd say it's a rather strange piece of work, but the acting, editing, and chisled-looking grayish images command a certain respect. And when the limbs are lopped off and the blood spurts from the jugular, it looks disconcertingly real; it just doesn't matter that much after a while.

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