Before I watched Neil Marshall's Centurion, there was an ad from the Scottish Tourist Board. The slogan was "It won't take you long to see the best of Scotland", which is one of those slogans which seem brilliant until someone like me says "No, I imagine it won't". It's going to take the Scottish Tourist Board a bit more than that to counteract Neil Marshall's influence, which depicts Scotland as a wonderful place to go and get chopped to bits by lunatics. I was sort of surprised to see that he was able to make the film IN Scotland. I imagine that they told the Scots it was someone else directing and he went in disguise.
Marshall's got extensive form on this, you see. In Dog Soldiers, the SAS goes on manoeuvres in Scotland and gets eaten by werewolves. In Doomsday an elite British army squad goes to Scotland to find the cure for a plague, and gets butchered by cannibals. And in Centurion, the 9th Legion of the Roman Army goes to Scotland and gets wiped out to the last man by bloodthirsty Picts. I think that even the most easygoing therapist would start to see that Neil Marshall's a bit conflicted about Scotland. On the one hand, he keeps making movies set there; on the other hand, he's not doing the place any favours. Since he's from Newcastle-on-Tyne, I'm wondering if it's got something to do with borderland angst.
Dog Soldiers is a very clever little film that sets out to do something very simple and does it very well. SAS, werewolves; it's almost like an elevator pitch right there. And it works splendidly, partly because one of Marshall's little knacks is that he's quite good at doing male group dynamics; his teams of men feel true to life, and when you're throwing werewolves around, you want everything around them to be grounded in the familiar. It ups the ante properly. Doomsday is more of a guilty pleasure; there's too much plot somehow hammered into too much action and I honestly stopped trying to count the films it nicked scenes from (conspicuous steals are Aliens and Mad Max 2 - but if you're going to steal, steal from the best and do it with panache). It's still great fun while being shockingly gory and very disillusioned.
Centurion's not really as good as either. It's not at all a bad film, although my heart sank when I saw the credits, which are a bit too intrusive and fancy, to be kind about it. To be unkind about it, I said at the time that plainly they'd spent too much of the budget on the credits to get them redone less bombastically. Huge pseudo-bronze lettering flies through the snowbound Scottish landscape; it's all far too over the top for the movie which follows. The closing credits are actually worse; a headache inducing mess of bits flying in from all angles. Oh dear. But like I say, I reckon they cost too much to send them back.
The movie's fine if you don't think about it too hard, and if you're thinking too hard in an action adventure movie, that might be the first indication that you weren't thinking hard enough before you bought the movie ticket. There are three things which will have you going WTF. Firstly, how does Michael Fassbender's character escape from the Picts in the first place? It's never explained; you see him being captured in a remote outpost, you see him getting bashed up by the Picts, and then you see him running for his life, but there's no explanation of how he got to be on the run. I suspect there's a deleted scene which clears this up. Secondly, the 9th Legion gets wiped out almost to the last man in one attack. Even if you buy the idea that 5000 trained men could get that beat up in an ambush, you're going to wonder how the Picts could arrange to have vast rolling flaming boulders on tap; they're awesome, but implausible. And thirdly, how do the Pict trackers keep finding the ragged band of seven refugees who are all that's left? That doesn't make a lick of sense, no matter how much they go on about the superhuman tracking skills of Etain the tracker.
There's fun to be had with some of the casting. Dominic West is in it, and we first meet him in an armwrestling contest which he closes out by stabbing his opponent in the arm. That McNulty, a pain in the ass in every era. Olga Kurylenko plays the superhuman tracker, and in a welcome break from every other film I've seen her in, she DOESN'T show up in revealing/no clothing and make an unsuccessful pitch to be romanced by the male lead. In fact, she's wearing more clothes in this than all her other roles put together. Hard to say if this means she's developing as an actress, because they made her mute. I saw Imogen Poots credited in the opening credits and spent the whole movie looking out for her; I remembered her from 28 Weeks Later, and there's such a clash between what that name would make you expect and the way she actually looks that I really couldn't have forgotten her. She's shoehorned in near the end as kind of a happy ending delivery system, but Michael Fassbender goes through so much that you can't really grudge him a happy ending.
I'm going to give Marshall a pass on the Picts, who all speak Pictish, or rather bad Gaelic, in weird accents that sound Russian rather than Scottish or Irish. We haven't really got a clue what Picts sounded like and although it sounds wrong to my ears, I don't know enough to contradict the call. What's funny is that the most convincing Pictish comes from Fassbender; he's the only one of the main speaking cast who delivers the Pictish dialogue in a natural sounding way, which of course I attribute entirely to the fact that he grew up in Killarney where he was taught to speak Irish properly.
There's an extraordinarily bonkers twist ending, in which the corrupt Roman leadership decides that they have to cover up the loss of an entire legion by making sure there are no survivors to carry the news back to Rome; it's bonkers because it only makes sense in today's world of mass media and whistleblowing. This is 117 AD; the public relations impact of a lone survivor announcing a calamity would be, well, nothing. And a whole Legion falling off the map wouldn't exactly have been the kind of thing you could keep from the only people whose opinion mattered. It's almost, though not quite, as unrealistic as the ending of Green Zone.