The Tournament (2009)

2014 #46
Scott Mann | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

The TournamentThe Tournament is the kind of film where its relative quality is entirely dependent on what you want from a movie. Is it original? Not terribly. Is it clever? Not really. Is it action-packed and kinda fun? Yessir. If you just want to shift your brain into neutral and watch people punch, kick, shoot, stab, chase, and generally fight each other in a slickly-produced fashion, with a solid enough plot that (depending how brain-neutral you’ve gone) might offer an occasional twist… well, you’ve come to the right place.

The plot sees a bunch of the world’s greatest assassins lured to compete in a once-every-seven-years competition to find who’s the best — which, naturally, involves trying to kill each other. Meanwhile, a bunch of shady rich folk gamble on the outcome alongside the tournament’s organiser (Liam Cunningham). Particular interest is added because the last tournament’s winner (Ving Rhames) has been lured back for vengeance against whoever murdered his wife, while another canny competitor manages to shift his tracking device into an unsuspecting vicar (Robert Carlyle). Hilarity ensues! Oh, no, wait — carnage. Carnage ensues.

Also, it’s set in Middlesborough. No, really. You don’t expect a big explosive action movie to be set in Middlesborough, do you? Yet it somehow works. Or, rather, it doesn’t matter. Makes a change from somewhere obvious, at least, and the plain urbanity lends itself well to a few set pieces. It was shot in both the UK and Bulgaria, which probably explains why much of the city stuff looks British, but some (including a couple of churches) has a distinctly foreign feel.

explosive chase involving a double-decker busThe action is the draw, of course, and fortunately the film delivers in spades. The best stuff involves Sebastien Foucan, who you may remember as Bond’s bomb-maker target in Casino Royale’s post-titles sequence; or the 2012 season of Dancing on Ice, if you’re more sequin-inclined. He’s one of the founders of Parkour, and brings all those skills to bear in a duel with a car, amongst other sequences. If you like a well-choreographed bit of action filmmaking then The Tournament’s worth it for that bit alone. The climax, an explosive chase involving a double-decker bus and a motorway, is another highlight.

The Tournament sets out to provide action thrills, and those it delivers better than some more well-known examples of the genre. If it isn’t all that intelligent or original then that barely matters — it could be dumber and more derivative; again, there are worse instances among better-known movies. My score errs on the generous, then, but some overlooked films need the encouragement.

4 out of 5

Centurion (2010)

2011 #82
Neil Marshall | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #9…

CenturionThe fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.

The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.

Run, Fassbender, runRegular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I; though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.

And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.

The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) Olga the ScotThe cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.

On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.

On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.

Stunning sceneryI really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.

4 out of 5

Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.