- Centurion, like many of Neil Marshall's movies, may be something of an acquired taste. Some might not really dig this one, but for me, it really clicked. I loved the look of the movie, the characters, the action. I loved that it felt like an ancient Rome version of some old EC comic book - a dark, violent, tale of survival and cruel twists of fate. Centurion has over the top violence, larger than life, comic book-like characters, and a Roman empire setting that's somewhere between Gladiator and 300 in terms of historical accuracy vs. stylized fantasy. If you only accept historical fiction in the form of sweeping, epic drama, then this might not be the film for you. Centurion is more that cool little side story on the fringes of a much grander backdrop. It's down n' dirty, bloody, pulpy. In fact, pulp might be the best word for this. It's Roman legion pulp fiction. And if that is your bag, you're bound to like Centurion.
Just to back up for a second, I know some of you are probably wondering what this CENTURION movie is. Well, it's the latest from writer / director Neil Marshall, whose past credits include subterranean horror flick The Descent, and 80's action homage Doomsday. After the promise and acclaim of The Descent, Marshall likely had his pick of high profile projects. But rather than do what's easy, Marshall has chosen to make less commercial genre films that show off a unique sensibility and style. To me, that's made him one of the most interesting guys in movies, but it's also made him something of a divisive figure. I mean, I loved DOOMSDAY, for example. I thought it was a kickass, balls to the wall action movie that felt like the second coming of John Carpenter (and it was, pretty clearly, a tribute to the old Carpenter movies like Escape From New York). Some hated the movie, though, and wrote it off as just another mindless actionfest. Still, a bit of a cult formed around it and a lot of people were excited for Marshall's next movie - Centurion - myself included. For whatever reason though, the movie never got a big US distribution deal, and was relegated to a limited theatrical release - although it's also currently viewable on VOD and digital platforms like XBOX Live and Playstation. In any case, Centurion is another kickass film from Marshall and, once again, I'm left eagerly awaiting whatever he comes up with next.
Centurion takes place in Britain, circa 117 A.D. The Roman army, in its neverending quest to expand the empire, has been having trouble with a particularly savage tribe known as the Pict. When the legendary Ninth Legion - led by the charismatic General Virilus' (played by Dominic West) descends on Pict land, the legion is ambushed and mostly slaughtered. Centurion follows the only seven Roman soldiers to survive the battle. On the run from the unrelenting Pict warriors, the survivors, led by the resourceful Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) must avoid death by sword, by beast, by cold, by starvation, and by treachery. The hunters, as they say, have become the hunted.
Like Doomsday before it, Centurion just seems to press all the right buttons. It's got a simple but effective story, intriguing and iconic characters brought to life by some great actors, and some truly riveting and shocking action scenes. Plus, the sense of tension, of foreboding, is everpresent. It's the kind of dark tale that draws you in and doesn't let go. The grim narration of Quintus frames the story, giving it that extra-pulpy feel. Meanwhile, sweeping shots of the British highlands are intercut with swift, kinetic, and gory action, creating a potent mix of scenic landscapes and bone-crunching violence.
It helps that the cast is more than up to the task of drawing us headlong into this atmospheric world. First and foremost, Michael Fassbender is just plain badass in the lead role of Quintus. He has a quiet intensity that makes his character easy to root for and empathize with. I hadn't had a lot of previous exposure to Fassbender, but he just seems like one of those great, sort of underrated actors who is very believable as a period action hero. Centurion is a showcase for Fassbender's very obvious talent. Dominic West is another standout. He is a lot of fun as the revered general of the Ninth Legion. Again, totally badass and definitely a scene-stealer. The rest of the cast is generally very good to excellent, and I really liked the team dynamic of Quintus band of Roman brothers. We aren't given a ton of information about each soldier, but we know just enough to feel invested in each. That said, the other real breakout star of the film is Olga Kurylenko as Etain, a Pict huntress who is completely consumed with wreaking unholy vengeance on any and all Romans, who long ago, among other horrific deeds, killer her family and slashed her tongue, leaving her mute. Kurylenko doesn't speak in the movie, but her eyes burn with ferocious intensity, and her character, adorned in war paint, is stunning but also pretty damn scary. Etain is just a great, iconic character, and sure to be a fanboy favorite for a long time to come.
Centurion does have a couple of moments that walk the line between over-the-top and just plain hokey, and it takes a while to really build up some good momentum and get the story rolling. The initial jumps between Fassbender and West are a bit confusing at first, as their characters look a bit too similar (in fact, several main character in the movie are similar-looking, making things a bit more hard to follow than they should be). However, once the movie turns its focus to Quintus and his small band of legionaires on the run, it really picks up steam. It's at that point that we get a better sense for what sort of movie it is that we're watching. Although the opening scenes hint at some sort of epic war movie, Centurion is in fact a much smaller-scale parable about a soldier who finds himself without an army, without a country, without a king. This soldier, hunted by unrelenting forces, has nothing let except his will to survive.
I would definitely recommend giving Centurion a look. It's dark, grim, and violent ... it's unquestionably badass as hell. Not for everyone, I get that. But if you're the type that can let yourself be pulled into a pulpy tale with bigger-than-life characters and over-the-top action - and yes, probably some dramatic license with history - then I think you're going to like this one a lot.
My Grade: A-