Centurion follows the Roman army’s infamous Ninth Legion as it moves forward from Hadrian’s wall into Scotland to destroy the Picts, a violent and barbarous race that plagued the Romans throughout their time in Britain.
The film opens with a bloody attack on a Roman outpost and the only survivor is Quintus Dias (played by Michael Fassbender), who barely escapes, only to happen upon the Ninth Legion as they march into Scotland, led by a mute Pict guide named Etain (Olga Kurylenko). Etain betrays the Legion, who are all but destroyed by the violent attack. The survivors (alongside Quintus Dias) set off in pursuit of the Picts, in order to save their Commander Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West). However, their plan isn’t entirely successful and soon they find themselves being hunted by Etain and her band of ferocious Pict warriors.
Neil Marshall is a director who likes to wear his inspiration on his sleeve – and when watching Centurion it is easy to see where his ideas came from. The Germanic opening of Gladiator is clearly a visual inspiration for the film – as are Aliens and Apocalypto – so it’s good to see that Marshall borrows from the best. Now, Centurion isn’t as good as those films, but Marshall certainly gives it his best shot.
Marshall first broke onto the cinematic scene a decade ago with Dog Soldiers. He parlayed the success of the film into his great horror achievement, The Descent – a move which led to his biggest commercial success. The filmmaker was given a larger budget and carte blanche for his next feature, Doomsday, a John Carpenter/Mad Max riff that was slammed by critics and died at the box office. The disappointment of Doomsday – with its overblown excesses – must have led Marshall to regroup and think smaller… which leads us to Centurion.
The first highlight in the film is the casting. Marshall has assembled a magnificent cast, led by the great Fassbender. The Irish actor has been on a great run during the last few years, delivering stellar work in Inglourious Basterds, Hunger and Fish Tank. He is clearly an actor to keep an eye on, and in Centurion he delivers a strong and charismatic performance. The Wire’s Dominic West is also clearly relishing his role as the leader of the Ninth Legion. Loud, strong and brash, West makes Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator seem like a shrinking violet. The rest of the Legion (including David Morrisey, Liam Cunningham and Noel Clarke) are also pretty decent – despite their roles being underwritten. Kurylenko delivers a pretty feral performance, even though her character has no tongue.
Centurion is not for the faint-hearted. It’s an extremely violent and gory action film in which heads and limbs are removed by slashing swords and every body part that can be skewered, is. In fact, it’s almost too violent: once you’ve seen five decapitations, you’ve pretty much seen them all. However, Marshall knows how to handle action and he doesn’t skimp on battle sequences, so if you want a gritty and violent sword and sandal action film, then Centurion is for you.
The real stars of the film are cinematographer Sam McCurdy and the Scottish countryside. The sweeping helicopter camera shots showing the snowy and mountainous terrain are just breathtaking, and if the film reaches a wide audience then Centurion should help do for the Scottish tourist industry what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand.
The main flaw of the film is the script. At times the dialogue in the film errs on the side of cliché and many of the characters appear to be underdeveloped, which is a shame when you’ve got the sort of cast that Marshall has assembled. The lack of development is also due to the film’s very brief running time of 97 minutes. There’s an awful lot going on and it feels that quite a bit of plot and characterization were left on the cutting room floor.
Now it’s clear that Marshall doesn’t intend to win any Academy Awards with Centurion, but most films detailing such events have upwards of three-hour run-times. While this isn’t needed for Centurion, an extra 20 minutes to develop plot and character would have been nice. The third act romance could also have been sacrificed for a few more minutes with the Legion. The rushed pace could be due to budgetary reasons, granted, but it’s a flaw that cost the film one full star by my rating.
It’s good to see Neil Marshall getting back on track after the disjointed Doomsday. With Centurion he’s delivered an old-fashioned (if gory) action film with a Roman twist. If you’ve enjoyed his previous efforts, then you will enjoy this as well. He’s a man who loves movies, and he clearly makes films that he likes to watch – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Centurion isn’t flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but it is filled with plenty of gory action and it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. However, four movies in and it’s becoming apparent that Marshall’s skill is as a director and not a writer, so if he wants to avoid an M. Night Shyamalan-style decline, it might be good for him to tackle someone else’s material – or at the very least, only co-write his next feature.