Director Neil Marshall has had somewhat a hit or miss career so far even if he has only made four movies. Dog Soldiers made a mild splash with genre fans back in 2002, but his follow-up, The Descent, quickly became a horror classic thanks to some truly frightening and claustrophobic scares. Then came 2008’s festering pile of rehashed feces, Doomsday. So… good, great, abysmally bad. Where will his latest land?
It’s 117 AD and the Roman Empire is spreading across the globe like the bird flu. Families, villages, and nations are left quivering in their wake… everywhere except Northern Britain. There they face a fierce resistance from the Picts who fight using unfamiliar guerrilla tactics to hold the Romans at bay for two decades. Rome sends General Titus Virilus (Dominic West) on a mission to attack and wipe out the Picts with the mighty Ninth Legion under his command, but the plan falls apart when they’re quickly decimated in a well orchestrated ambush. Now a handful of survivors, including Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), find themselves trapped behind enemy lines and in a desperate struggle to return home.
Centurion opens with Dias bound, shirtless, and running for his life across a frozen tundra, and that pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the movie as one big chase. We flashback two weeks to Dias’ post at Rome’s northernmost garrison. He’s already feeling philosophical about a life devoted only to combat. “This is a new kind of war,” he tells a fellow soldier “a war without honor, without end.” Cue the Pict assault! The fortress is defeated, Dias is captured, and soon he’s running half-naked in the snow.
Those looking for a historical take on the mystery of the Ninth Legion should enter with caution here because, and this is not a criticism, this is an action movie. Period. Thankfully it’s a kick ass action movie filled with heads and limbs lopped off, impaled torsos, sword fights, balls of fire, a bloody eye-gouging of an otherwise attractive lady, and more. This is seriously one bloody as hell movie, and the combat scenes are glorious in their brutality. Marshall knows how to shoot action, both large scale and small, and the combat scenes are well-choreographed mash-ups of metal and flesh. Adding to the overall effect is fantastically wet sound work that helps make the bloodletting even more of a joy to the senses.
As fantastic and brutal as the non-stop action is though Marshall unfortunately chose to go the digital blood route for much of it. CGI splashes paint the screen, but thanks to sharp and fast editing most of it blends in and avoids knocking the viewer out of the movie. Once in while though the effect is so egregious that you just may spit in disgust. One example being an early scene with Dias’ chest being sliced… it looks ridiculous enough that I’d suggest getting lost in Fassbender’s eyes during the scene instead of watching the sword tip.
The cast is solid all around, but they’re not really given much to do aside from hack, slash, and chatter. Fassbender and West are interesting actors, and both are very physical performers too which works to the film’s advantage here. As good as they are at the fisticuffs and sword-clanging though they’re both out-shined by a pair of gorgeous female warriors. Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is the mute tracker hellbent on an unknown revenge, and Aeron (Axelle Carolyn) is the Pict who can speak but prefers to get her point across with sharp weapons and a murderous intensity.
Brief breaks in the action allow time for slight attempts at characterization and back story. Narration from Dias hints at a subtle respect for the enemy that does a fairly good job of equalizing the playing field in the viewers’ minds. This isn’t a tale of good versus evil, but instead one of individuals caught up in clashes bigger than they are. An outside character is introduced in the form of a young woman ostracized by both sides of the conflict (and played by the wonderfully named Imogen Poots). She represents the closest thing to a “right side” there is in the film and along Dias’ journey. More time should have been spent with her for the effect to feel more natural, but the effort is appreciated.
Centurion accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and that’s entertain. Marshall has made his best looking film to date with help from some stunning Scottish landscapes serving as backdrop to the gritty and visceral action unfolding onscreen. The story is light, and attempts to strengthen it with narration from Dias and a minor love story late in the game aren’t completely successful. His character still isn’t as three dimensional as he should have been, but it’s enough for the task at hand which is to be the viewer’s envoy into a world of death, brutality, and honor. Just not always in that order…
Centurion is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is also available through VOD. ** UPDATE 11/2/10** Centurion is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment.
The Upside: Lots of really strong action, most of it bloody and brutal; even a mute Olga Kurylenko is a fine Olga Kurylenko; interesting balance between two sides in that neither are purely good or purely evil
The Downside: CGI blood is and always will be a negative; could use more back-story on Fassbender’s character; scene at the end meant to be dramatic but character’s stupidity deflates it
On the Side: In addition to playing an ass-kicking Pict warrior in the film, Axelle Carolyn is also engaged to Neil Marshall.