Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mini-Review: 'Centurion'

The old breed of action director is dead, crow the naysayers. The George Millers and Walter Hills, while still working, have taken a backseat to the Len Wisemans and the McG’s, empty stylists more in love with color palettes and commercial editing than telling a story. The great action filmmakers, and even the middling ones in the vein of Richard Donner, understood that an action sequence is only as strong as the characters and story behind them. It’s something Neil Marshall gets, however, and he gets it in spades.

“Centurion,” the British helmer’s fourth film, features a threadbare storyline weaved in and out of a serious of chase and fight sequences. There’s nothing wrong with a skimpy movie, with a story that has no timeliness to modern day issues, but once upon a time, filmmakers used to shoot and edit them to so you didn’t wonder where the thematic thread went. Marshall has made a film that is both superficially apolitical and at the same time universal in its embrace of the hunt and the chase. With that comes measured expectations, of course: without this substance, a work of art isn’t usually going to survive as a classic.

Marshall knows there’s no crime in creating such a work so he focuses on pacing and action. The story involves a botched siege of the minority Picts by Roman soldiers, though Marshall prefers the conflict between an overconfident whole, now fractured, and the fear of a society with their backs against the walls. Some recorded history, and some filmmakers, would favor the tragic story of the Picts, but in this story, the mighty many become the unlikely few, the Romans stripped down to a skeleton crew desperate to make it back to their own territory.

Michael Fassbender is the steely, resourceful leader of a Roman troupe taken apart by the marauding Picts, forced to fend for himself in a performance that’s more physical than anything else. Fassbender, a handsome, square-jawed sort, makes a fitting modern update to Cornel Wilde in “The Naked Prey,” all sinewy limbs and taut chest. As the leader of a near-supernatural cult on his trail, Olga Kurylenko is the latest in an already-impressive lineup of terrifying, vengeful females in Marshall films, her thousand-mile stare equipped with a few handy skills with weaponry.

“Centurion” slows down for a romance with an off-the-grid witch (Imogen Poots), but the strength of the picture lies in the pursuit. When swords do clash, its bloody and ruthless, and Marshall spares not a single pint of blood. More gruesome than any horror film, Marshall still keeps the action tight, and even when there’s a mass battle sequence, we follow a distinct few battles with clarity and precision. Compared to Marshall’s last film “Doomsday,” which seemed like something he needed to get out of his system, “Centurion” is a pure, un-distilled blast of genuine action-adventure.

"Centurion" is currently available On-Demand, I believe, and it's in theaters tomorrow. Select ones!

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