Neil Marshall has proven himself over time to be a filmmaker who is able to move from style to style, genre to genre, and he seems to understand that the films he makes are entertainment, pure and simple. Watching “The Descent” in a dark theater that’s completely packed is a great exercise in tension. His “Doomsday” is one of the most remarkable examples of one filmmaker paying homage to the style and technique of another filmmaker I can recall. He has a great sense of camera and energy, and even when I don’t love his movies, I respect the craft and the confidence.
“Centurion,” his latest, attempts to answer the question of what happened to Rome’s legendary Ninth Legion, and it’s a bloody, gritty, simple chase film that gives Michael Fassbender a lead role that could easily turn him into a viable action hero in big Hollywood films. So far, he’s proven himself to be a gifted and interesting actor in films like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” and the underseen “Fish Tank” from earlier this year. He’s a bit of a chameleon, and he’s one of those actors who pushes his body to extremes depending on the role. For “Hunger,” where he played an Irish hunger striker, he looked like he was on the verge of death, emaciated and frail. In “Centurion,” he’s preposterously ripped, and he handles himself like an old pro in the fight sequences. It’s an impressive piece of work, and he grounds the film with his performance.
Equally good is Dominic West, known to most (if they know him at all) as McNulty from “The Wire.” He plays the general of the Legion, and he’s pure action hero charisma here. He’s one of those guys who should have exploded based on the work he did on “The Wire,” but it didn’t happen for whatever reason. In an age when so many of our action leads strike me as kids playacting, West is a real grown-up, a guy who projects exactly the right qualities as a leader of a battle-hardened team of Roman soldiers.
The film takes place in the final days of the Roman occupation of the land inhabited by the Picts, and the Romans are getting their asses kicked regularly. They simply aren’t able to compete with the guerilla tactics that the Picts have perfected, and West is ordered to try one last push using a Pict tracker who has agreed to work for the Romans. Olga Kurylenko, the gorgeous Russian star of “Hitman” and “Quantum Of Solace” is one of those performers who is very good on camera, very natural, but she’s not particularly good with English. Marshall solves that problem by literally cutting out the character’s tongue, so the performance is purely physical, all about the eyes and the body language. When she eventually reveals herself as a traitor, becoming the force of nature pursuing the last survivors of a bloody ambush of the Legion, she’s imposing and gives a strong performance.
The movie is essentially a set-up, an ambush, and a chase that just keeps going from about 30 minutes in to the very end. It makes excellent use of the natural landscape of the UK, and one of the virtues of it being an independent film as opposed to a giant-budget Hollywood version of this story, is that most of it appears to have been done in-camera and practical, including the unrelenting bloodshed in the film. What’s interesting is that some of the issues I had with the film on first viewing at SXSW evaporated when seeing it a second time. It’s a really lean piece of work, and considering how clearly Marshall was playing with the style of John Carpenter and George Miller in his last film, he’s managed to make a movie that doesn’t have any trace of another filmmaker in it. It’s simply a muscular little action film that knows exactly what it wants to do, and in the end, it delivers on the modest promise of its premise.
ActionFest has been a blast this weekend, starting with the Thursday night screening of “Centurion,” and I’ve enjoyed being here in Asheville, North Carolina so much that it’s been tough finding time to write. I’ll definitely be writing more reviews of what I’ve seen here, though, because I’ve seen some things that are worth the attention, including one movie that’s going direct-to-video even though it’s one of the most preposterously satisfying action films I’ve seen in a theater in a while.
More on that soon here as ActionFest wraps up on Sunday evening and I head back to LA on Monday afternoon.
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