SXSW Review: Centurion

By  · Published on March 18th, 2010

If I learned one thing from the horror panel, which is absurd because I actually learned a surfeit of things from that panel, it’s that Neil Marshall is an incredibly smart guy. But as a horror film viewer, I would have to characterize my feelings toward him as tepid. I though The Descent was decent until the aggravatingly stupid “gotcha” ending ruined it. Admittedly I haven’t seen all of Doomsday but found what I saw to be overly derivative and, although it nearly got me crucified by my horror brethren, I have an active distaste for Dog Soldiers. But somehow I was still excited to see his latest film, Centurion, as a midnight screening. Would this be a masterpiece of genre storytelling or would Mr. Marshall once again fail to move me?

Centurion weaves the epic tale of Rome’s 9th legion. This was a legion stationed in the northernmost portion of the empire; modern day England. Rome found some of its greatest adversaries in the Pict tribe that inhabited this region. Masters of guerrilla warfare, the Pictish tribes attacked Roman garrisons in the dead of night and caused innumerable casualties. Centurion focuses on the fallout of a particularly nasty ambush they spring on the 9th legion. Their ranks decimated, only a handful of soldiers survive and must escape from enemy territory before they are butchered one by one.

I am happy to report that this is the first Neil Marshall film I have enjoyed from start to finish. That being said, it is by no means a great movie. It is a truly solid period piece that allows him to flex his horror chops while dabbling in other genres. Like Doomsday, it’s a little derivative of several other sources, Gladiator and the television series Rome for example, but the blend is somewhat unique and definitely entertaining. The script isn’t flawless, but the actors are able to carry the grander of the archaic speech without making it sound overly ostentatious. The story itself is also highly captivating; the wayward soldiers trying to make it home reminded me a lot of The Warriors which was pretty freaking cool.

The film also benefits from a pair of outstanding performances. Michael Fassbender plays Quintus, a centurion who is rescued by the 9th legion after being taken prisoner by the Picts. He ultimately becomes their leader when their general, played by Dominic West, is captured. Fassbender is a phenomenal actor. I am ashamed to say I didn’t take note of his talent until Inglorious Basterds, but the man is amazing. He has this old-world charm and class that makes him pitch-perfect for period films; guy looks like Don Draper in Basterds for crying out loud. And frankly, after Punisher: War Zone, I had no idea West was an honest-to-God actor. As a performer, he’s a little rough around the edges but he makes that work to his advantage with the character he plays. He’s a brute with a solidified sense of honor and the kind of machismo that is par for the course in a movie about ancient soldiers.

Look, Marshall is not reinventing the wheel here. Centurion is a taut, honed actioner with respectable production value and an adequate grasp of cinematography. But the performances and the violence are about the only elements that truly stand out. Good lord this thing is bloody; Marshall calling upon his horror roots to emphasize the shocking brutality of combat. All in all, it’s not something I would race out to see in theaters, but will make a completely satisfying rental once it hits video.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.