What did the Romans ever do for us? Well, they surely shaped at least part of our national identity. The fact that the legions of Rome conquered Northern Europe, then took a look at the bewoded cyber punks that were the Picts (if Hollywood is to be believed at any case) and said ‘nae danger’, must be the seed of the notion that Scotland is a country of hard men and women who will not be tamed. Not warrior poets, as Mad Mel would have us believe, but more like New Romantic savages.
This is certainly one of the beliefs that lies behind two very similar films which were released last year based on the legend of the Ninth Legion of Rome, who went boldly into Scotland, fully tooled up, to spread the Roman word and sort out the locals. Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle and Neil Marshall’s Centurion both use this tale to tell of how Rome’s army were sent home tae think again.
The Eagle stars Channing Tatum, and Jamie Bell, and although it starts off promisingly, looking at themes of revenge, honour and tradition, it soon becomes just another buddy movie, and the final scenes, with Bell and Tatum smirking at each other as they head off to their next adventure, feels like it belongs in another film. I always think Tatum is from the Joey Tribbiani school of acting, looking as though he is thinking of a difficult sum in an attempt to portray emotion. I may be being unfair as he has had good reviews in recent films which I haven’t seen, but in this Bell overshadows him throughout. Bell is the Ratso to Tatum’s Joe Buck, or perhaps the Eastwood to his Clyde.
Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, the centurion charged with finding out what happened to the Ninth, who were lead by his now disgraced father. They are believed to be dead, but Marcus is determined to discover his father’s fate and recover the symbolic eagle which they took into battle. Bell is his slave and guide, Esca, who is not all he seems (a plot device that Centurion also uses. Does nobody in film talk to each other?). Actually, Esca is exactly what he seems and you can see what is coming from the top of Ben Nevis. Things pick up with the arrival of Mark Strong, but he doesn’t hang about for long enough to make a difference, and as matters get increasingly mystical the film loses the little focus it had. The problem is you just don’t care. About anyone. Except Mark Strong.
Here’s the trailer:
Centurion has the distinct advantage of having Michael Fassbender in the lead role. He has become, in a reasonably short space of time, one of the most reliable and charismatic screen presences, up there with De Niro, Bridges and Day Lewis. He is one of the few actors I would watch no matter what the film, and he manages to give Centurion a gravitas that the script barely merits.
The rest of the cast also do a sterling job of support. Dominic West is perfect as the general of the doomed Ninth (which makes him, I suppose, Channing Tatum’s dad). He is a man whose men will follow him to hell and back, and even over the border. His ragged bunch of misfit soldiers are in the grand cinematic tradition of The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone or The Magnificent Seven, and their disparate ranks include David Morrisey, Noel Clarke, Liam Cunningham and the always excellent Lee Ross, (for all you Press Gangfans).
Neil Marshall has made a version of Centurion before, except he set it in a dystopian near future and called it Doomsday. Both Doomsday and Centurion have a gang of mercenaries making a daring raid over the border, and they make great play of the need for those in Caledonia to be walled in; portraying them as cannibalistic, lawless, incestuous, and lovers of braided hair. If you were paranoid, you could get the feeling that Marshall, who is from Newcastle, is not overly fond of Scotland or those who live there. Perhaps too many stag and hen nights to Bigg Market have coloured his view. But these films have their tongues so far in their cheeks that you would have to be incredibly churlish to see them as anything other than dumb fun.
There is a remarkable amount of CGI blood in this film, gushing and spurting so much that it loses any impact or ability to shock. But that is Marshall’s style. He is not a serious filmmaker, or rather he doesn’t take film making too seriously, and this makes his films very enjoyable as long as you don’t expect too much. His debut, and still his best film, was the low budget werewolf thriller Dog Soldiers, and The Descent was one of the only terrifying movies of the last ten years. He knows how to scare, and he knows how to excite, and there are too few filmmakers in the UK that can do that. His films look great and are reminiscent of a lot of Japanese movies in their cartoonish depiction of violence. They might not be to everyones’ taste, but I think he’s one of the most interesting and entertaining directors around.
Here’s Centurion’s trailer:
Which is the better movie? I would come down on the side of Centurionbecause the acting is better and it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an old fashioned adventure, but together they make an enjoyable double bill for a wet Saturday afternoon, if you like your swords and sandalry. While both films make the slightest of nods to the fact that the Roman Army were an empire building, invading, force, it’s still interesting that we are supposed to be on their side. While the message behind both films (if there can be said to be one) is that war is hell, and good men die on the orders of idiots, you can’t help thinking, “Well, you started it”.