Sunday, January 6, 2019
Once a hot genre director, Neil Marshall will release his first theatrical feature film in nine years when the Hellboy reboot -- heralded by an unimpressive trailer in theaters now -- premieres this April. Marshall, who made his name worldwide with The Descent in 2005, has been stuck directing TV since Centurion flopped in 2010. It's a film I've long been curious about, but maybe it's part of the problem that I've only just gotten around to seeing it. Whatever the case, now that I have seen it I can say it wasn't that bad, but there are some things I didn't care for. The CGI blood sprays are unrealistically instantaneous, for instance, and I still find it jarring to hear Roman soldiers from nearly 2,000 years ago using modern swear words. I understand it's meant to make them relatable as common men rather than antique aliens, but just as when I tried to watch the Spartacus TV show it always threatens to take me right out of the story. Hollywood has conditioned me too well, I guess. Anyway, on the positive side of the ledger Centurion is an often-impressive outdoor action picture that suggests a symbolic birthing of Britain from the mating, promised at the end, of the best of both worlds, Roman and Briton (or Pict), though each is in a tiny minority. Starting out as the sole survivor of a Roman outpost overrun by the woad-wearing savages, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) escapes only to lead the remnants of the almost-annihilated Ninth Legion back to safety behind the new line of defense, Hadrian's Wall. For his trouble he's targeted for death by unscrupulous officials who want no one to tell of the legion's sad fate -- led into an ambush by a treacherous guide (Olga Kuryenko) who was trusted by the highest authorities. Marshall likes his strong female, so the guide Etain becomes the primary antagonist of the picture, leading the Picts with her super tracking skills while Quintus rallies a motley band, not all of whom are worth saving, to safety. Along the way the Romans take shelter with Arianne, a woman exiled by the Picts for alleged witchcraft (Imogen Poots) who seems the nearest thing to a "real" Englishwoman on screen. She knows Latin (the Picts speak in subtitles, making the natives the "other" against the multicultural but all Anglo inflected Romans) just as Quintus has mastered Pictish, each finding in the other at last an object for sincere cross-cultural communication. In the environment established by Marshall Arianne seems too good to be true, but I suppose such people are exceptional everywhere. The point seems to be that she and Quintus aren't going to find good people anywhere else. The main point, however, is that the action scenes justify this film's existence. Marshall arguably is a good enough action director that he doesn't need to punctuate his combats, but once a horror guy, always a horror guy. After a while the decapitations and such started to seem sophomorically superflous, but in the climactic fight, with the last three Romans defending an abandoned fort (introduced in a scene like something out of Northwest Passage) against a foolhardy final Pictish attack, Marshall focuses on drama rather than effects and makes the best scene in the film. You can see why he's remained in demand for genre projects, though maybe the film as a whole also shows in its excesses why he hasn't been given a chance to do something of his own for so long now.