Centurion (2010) dir. Neil Marshall
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West and Olga Kurylenko
By Greg Klymkiw
Neil Marshall is one terrific director, and he comes to every film he makes with the pedigree of being an editor - in fact, two of his directorial efforts, Dog Soldiers and Doomsday were edited by himself. Sadly, it is the editing that fails his latest picture Centurion.
Marshall's brawny screenplay, loosely based on a historical record that is itself a bit murky, focuses on imagining what might have happened to an entire Roman Legion in what is now Great Britain in the early part of the first millennium. It's a solid, simple script that should have yielded a much better picture.
It tells the story of a brave centurion, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) who promises his superior, General Titus Virilus (Dominic West) that he will lead a small group of Roman soldiers to safety after the entire legion has been savagely decimated in a guerrilla-styled offensive perpetrated by the merciless Picts. The rest of the movie is one long chase scene punctuated by dollops of vicious fighting. Leading the Picts is the sumptuous near perfection that is Olga Kurylenko as Etain, a warrior goddess who had her tongue cut out by the Romans when she was a child.
Kurylenko is quickly becoming one of my favourite actresses. Not only is she mind-blowingly gorgeous, the camera loves her like nothing else and I appreciate the diversity of roles she takes on. She could be an action star on the level of her Ukrainian compatriot Milla Jovovich (and probably even bigger), but if she plays her cards right, she also has the stuff to take on more roles in non-genre pieces and still deliver bigtime. In Centurion, she conveys a wide range of emotions even though, and perhaps especially because, she is forced to present her character without the benefit of dialogue. She conveys everything through action.
Speaking of "action" (in the Jerry Bruckheimer sense of the word), with a picture like Centurion, how the action scenes play out is virtually the whole shooting match. Unfortunately, much of the film feels as if it were edited with a series of multiple rapid golf club swings and slices. The first 20 minutes of battle and exposition is so choppily cut, that it's almost hard to believe the film comes from such a precise craftsman as Marshall. One only has to recall the superb craft in Marshall's The Descent where the cutting was measured for maximum impact. Even worse in Centurion, is how the relatively easy-to-follow setup is rendered utterly confusing and takes far too much effort to piece together while watching the movie. (This takes some doing considering how simple it all really is.)
It's obvious Marshall had more than enough coverage to allow for a cutting style that could hang back a bit, yet the movie's story and set pieces are foisted upon us using the currently fashionable quick cutting. Where this annoying cutting hurts the most is in the action scenes. For all of the great fight choreography and Marshall's exceptional eye, it's pretty much all for naught. The only sequence that packs a wallop the way it should is when the handful of centurions are on the run from Kurylenko and her bloodthirsty Pict warriors. The sequence works because Marshall's compositions are exquisite and the less frenetic cutting style allows the action to play out in ways that are both emotional and rooted squarely in narrative.
I detest this wham-bam-thank-you-mam style of cutting because it has little regard for how a cut can not only move things forward, but, in fact, disregards the fact that a cut is in and of itself - inherently dramatic. The cutting here has little drama - just noise and fury. One of the few directors who knows how to make this kind of cutting work is the extraordinary Paul Greengrass with his Bourne pictures, Bloody Sunday, United 93 and his latest thriller Green Zone. But with his pictures, they are designed from the get-go to be cut in this fashion and you can even tell that he knows exactly where his herky jerky shots are going and how they'll cut together. Alas, when the cutting style is employed in such a haphazard, all-over-the-place fashion as in Centurion, one fells that its makers are trying too hard - the , effect is visceral, but seldom works in service to the narrative.
The photography, production design and performances are all fine, and Marshall's distinctive approach to onscreen violence remains as vivid and original as ever. Unfortunately, the cutting - aimed at the ADHD-challenged not only sucks the life out of everything that could have worked beautifully, but in fact, for all the whizbang slicing and dicing, the picture becomes exhausting and as such, is often borderline boring. This is the sort of cutting one expects to see in a J.J. Abrams or Christopher "One Idea" Nolan effort - filmmakers who are not really born filmakers and make movies anyway in spite of having no idea how to make them.
In spite of all this, I remain a steadfast champion of Neil Marshall (hell, I'm probably one of the few people who genuinely likes Doomsday - a really fun ode to the George Miller Mad Max pictures) and I very much look forward to his next picture with considerable anticipation.
I just hope it will be better than Centurion.
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