GO CENTURION This highly enjoyable action-adventure, set in 117 A.D., tracks a small cohort of Roman soldiers who are trapped far north of their empire's boundary. A triple whammy of abrupt plot twists (I'll let the movie spring them) has these guys being run ragged by a vengeful posse of blue-painted Picts — primordial Brits with Scottish accents and Viking faces. Up to now, writer-director Neil Marshall has specialized in horror movies, but in Centurion he imagines and communicates a remote world with terrific energy and a passion for detail. Michael Fassbender gives a magnetic lead performance here as Quintus, the most stubborn and resourceful of the Roman band. He's backed by a strong ensemble of macho charmers with chiseled faces (Dominic West, Liam Cunningham), as well as Imogen Poots as the Druidic lass who lives as an outcast in the forest. Marshall's excellent direction only becomes rushed when the Picts approach Poots' hut to search for the Romans. Their supposed fear of this beauty's reputation for witchcraft isn't persuasively conveyed, so you're obliged to wonder why these otherwise relentless brutes don't just go busting in. In the end, though, this matters little. Centurion may bring to mind such recent armored entertainments as Pathfinder and the Bruckheimer King Arthur, but (and this is no small compliment) its craftsmanship and freedom from pretension suit it more to comparisons with Anthony Mann's two classic-pursuit Westerns, The Naked Spur and Man of the West. (F.X. Feeney) (Citywide)
CHASING 3000 The pitch probably went something like this: It's a road-trip/coming-of-age tale based on a true story, a tearjerker for manly men told largely in flashback to 1972, in which a surly but good-hearted teen (Trevor Morgan) and his younger brother, who has muscular dystrophy (Rory Culkin), attempt to drive — on a learner's permit — from California to Pittsburgh to see baseball great Roberto Clemente reach his 3,000th hit. The sound track is composed of stock nostalgia triggers, like the Rascals' "Good Lovin,'" Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" and America's "Horse With No Name." Throw in a beleaguered single mom (Lauren Holly) for the two boys, a lovable ethnic immigrant grandpa (Seymour Cassel) and a cast of quirky types encountered on the road (including grizzly but kind bikers). Thread it all with broadstroke paeans to old-fashioned heroism and the days before sports heroes became cynical commodities, and it's a movie. No, that probably wasn't the pitch, but toss in the visual style and nearly profanity-free language of a Disney Channel movie, and you've nut-shelled writer-director Gregory J. Lanesy's Chasing 3000, co-written by Bill Mitka, whose own family life inspired the movie. It's a tapestry of cinematic clichés in the service of fictionalized memoir, pushed just past serviceability by some great old footage of Clemente and affecting performances by Morgan, Culkin and Holly. (Ernest Hardy) (Mann Chinese)
THE KID: CHAMACO In his famous essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco explained that film's appeal in terms of the interplay — the "conversation" — among its numerous platitudes. "Two clichés make us laugh," he writes, "a hundred clichés move us." An apt characterization, perhaps, of the experience of taking in Michael Curtiz's classic, but it scarcely speaks to the majority of films composed of hackneyed narrative tropes. It certainly doesn't characterize Miguel Necoechea's The Kid: Chamaco, a decidedly unmoving boxing picture that gives us, for starters, such played-out creations as the ghetto kid from an abusive family who sees sports as the way out, the washed-up prizefighter looking for one more chance, and the do-gooder atoning for a past mistake. Necoechea's film, a U.S.-Mexican co-production starring Alex Perea as young would-be boxing champ Abner — alongside such American stalwarts as Martin Sheen and Michael Madsen — is so determined to juggle as many narrative elements as possible that it never properly focuses on any single one. Instead, we're treated to subplots involving Abner's meth-addicted girlfriend and a romance between his prostitute sister and his trainer, which leads to a scene of such melodramatic absurdity that it negates any remaining shred of narrative credibility the film had managed to retain. (Andrew Schenker) (Mann Chinese)
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MESRINE This two-part tale of French gangster-showman Jacques Mesrine is as densely packed and serially rambling as a well-trafficked Wikipedia entry. Director Jean-François Richet, who whipped up not-bad mayhem in his Assault on Precinct 13 remake, devotes so much time to tallying his subject's career milestones and highlights — all of them, it seems — that any insight into the supercriminal falls by the wayside. Mesrine's jaw-dropping record of flamboyant crimes and repeat prison breaks would seem to guarantee an exciting portrait, but Richet proves maddeningly loath to edit his material, and his charismatic star, Vincent Cassel, does not delve deep. Part One opens with Cassel and film in '70s drag ('stache, split screens) and previews the gangster's deadly ambush by cops in an unmarked truck, before returning to his beginnings. Part One also establishes the director's wearisome approach; his daisy chain of capers and hideouts, with no feel for which events to dwell on, suggests an impatience with basic storytelling. No small problem, too, is that the film yields only a rudimentary feel for what it was like to live in France or Canada in the '60s and '70s if you weren't a gangster in a movie. How can you get a sense of a folk hero or media obsession without context? Part Two dives into the '70s and sees Mesrine notching up another prison escape, cycling through disguises and ratcheting up his media provocations. This is buffet-style biopic, about as epic as Cassel's dutifully acquired second-half potbelly and no more profound. (Nicolas Rapold) (Arclight Hollywood, Landmark, Playhouse; Part One opens this week, Part Two opens next week)
THE PEOPLE I'VE SLEPT WITH Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) is a proud party girl who, as this yarn begins, is in the practice of getting raw-dogged in bar bathrooms by strangers. She's gotta have it — chlamydia, that is — but it's an unplanned pregnancy that sets director Quentin Lee's self-distributed indie in motion. As it happens, Angela keeps homemade collector's cards of her conquests, and, soliciting the help of Ricky from My So-Called Life, she revisits the various caricatures who've strewn seed inside of her in recent memory, including a big-schlonged stalker, a two-pump chump and a bend-over boyfriend. In hysterics yet? Head and shoulders above this rabble is possible father Jefferson Lee (Archie Kao), who's also in the running for city council. He's a Republican but totally great at making homemade pizza, and tells Angela encouraging things like, "You know you really should show your art" (she shouldn't). When all's done, Angela has learned a challenging moral to pass along to her baby: "The most important thing is, You do what you want." If this advice is followed, no one will finish The People I've Slept With, which has notably liberated itself from the fusty tradition that a sex comedy should either titillate or tickle an audience. (Nick Pinkerton) (Sunset 5)
GO PIRANHA 3-D An earthquake has opened an undersea chasm, unleashing a gazillion piranha near an Arizona resort town that just happens to be jammed with spring-break partiers anxious to frolic in the pretty blue lake. Horny horror-movie revelers tend to deserve what's coming to them, a sentiment French-born director Alexandre Aja embraces with maniacal glee in a third-act massacre that's downright ruthless (as were Aja's debut feature, High Tension, and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes). The human prey get filleted, in 3-D, no less, a technology that's deployed effectively — as when one piranha or another is plucked from the computer-animated horde and paraded past the moviegoer's nose — but also shamelessly, as when a naked woman points her breasts directly at the camera and shimmies. Irredeemable, and yet the movie, written by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, is too funny and the filmmaking too self-aware to be truly offensive. Some wonder why the Oscar-nominated Elisabeth Shue agreed to star in such obvious trash, but maybe when she read the part in the script where the piranha deliver a riotously gruesome but poetically just comeuppance to the story's most egregious misogynist, she laughed her way to saying, "Yes." (Chuck Wilson) (Citywide)
TAKERS "Come drink with me from the goblet of destruction," quotes T.I.'s bank robber (from Genghis Khan!) before Takers' big heist kicks off—and he's not joking. Acting as both producer and plot fulcrum, T.I. is the big human attraction in Takers, possessing the raw energy that charisma vacuums Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen (front and center) lack. Director John Luessenhop works around them in this cheerfully derivative attempt to merge the epically ponderous L.A.-scapes of Michael Mann's Heat (criminals versus police, with equal screen time for both) with the digital blur of Michael Mann's Collateral, but with far more firepower. At least a third of the running time is taken up by car and foot chases (Chris Brown still can't act, but his parkour is excellent), long Entourage-esque stretches fetishizing expensive clothing, and a generous dose of explosions. The editing is Bourne-fast but mostly coherent, and the plot reversals (no matter how flatly acted) actually do surprise. Gravel-voiced cop Matt Dillon (evidently aging into his Clint Eastwood years ahead of schedule), in pursuit of T.I.'s merry band, is the only other person as compelling as the impeccable action. That's more than enough to entertain; this is the best baseline-competent action movie to come out all summer. (Vadim Rizov) (Citywide)