Give Neil Marshall a few thousand extras, broadswords, arrows, and let him stuff them all into grungy medieval conditions, and the results are predictably splatter-rific. Written and directed by Neil Marshall (“Doomsday”, “The Descent”), “Centurion” chronicles the missing adventure of the Roman Ninth Legion circa early second century A.D. (As an aside, Kevin Macdonald’s “The Eagle of the Ninth” can be considered a follow-up of sorts to Marshall’s film, in that “Eagle” chronicles the search for the fate of the same Ninth Legion, though as far as I know, the two films were made independent of one another.) In Marshall’s film, though, the focus is less on what happens to the Ninth and more on what happens to the survivors after the Legion goes missing.
Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) stars as Quintus Dias, our narrator and Roman Centurion who is on the run from Pict barbarians when we first meet him. Dias eventually runs across friendlies among the Ninth Legion led by General Virilus (a impressively bulked up Dominic West, “300”), whose army is on the march into Pict territory on orders from Rome. It is the latest move by the civilized Romans to conquer the barbarian Picts, a bothersome race of hut-living primitives that don’t cotton much to Roman subjugation. (Insert your personal political/war allegories here.) Virilus is guided behind enemy lines by the mute scout Etain (Olga Kurylenko, “Quantum of Solace”), who quickly reveals her true Pict loyalties by leading the Ninth into a bloody ambush that leaves the Romans all but obliterated. (Don’t get your panties into a bunch, fanboys; Etain’s betrayal is all over the pictures, synopsis, and trailers for “Centurion”.)
There are survivors of the ambush — including Dias, Bothos (David Morrissey), Thax (JJ Field), Macros (Noel Clarke), Brick (Liam Cunningham), and a few others. After the survivors’ attempt to rescue Virilus from Pict captivity proves unsuccessful (and in fact, it just ends up pissing the Picts off even more), the remaining Romans begin their trek back to friendly lands, but that’s easier said than done. The second half of the film is one big chase movie, as the Pict King Gorlacon (Ulrich Tomsen) sends Etain and a few selected hunters after the Romans. The Third Act introduces a love interest for Dias in the form of Arianne (Imogen Poots, the kid in “28 Weeks Later”, all grown up and providing excellent eye candy), an outcast Pict woman who chooses to help the fugitive Romans. Sparks fly between Arianne and Dias. Or as much as romantic sparks are capable of flying in a Neil Marshall movie, anyway.
If you’re not familiar with the name Neil Marshall, then you’ve missed out on some excellent genre entries like the post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner “Doomsday” and the creature horror movies “The Descent” and “Dog Soldiers”. You can now add the brutal hack and slash of “Centurion” to the list of over-the-top genre films by the British director. The film is definitely pure Marshall, and if your interest was instantly piqued when you heard “Neil Marshall gets to play with broadswords”, you won’t be the least bit disappointed with “Centurion”. There is probably a little too much CGI bloodshed for my taste, but for those accustomed to (and indeed, expects more of) the director’s odd fixation on decapitations and seemingly out-of-nowhere bodily amputations, “Centurion” has you covered in spades.
The suddenly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (Hey, that’s Michael Fassbender!) leads the cast as Quintus Dias, though really, it could have been anyone. Characterization is not and was never Neil Marshall’s strong point, and that hasn’t changed with “Centurion”. To give you an example of how poorly Marshall handles the characters, he actually wrote in a scene where the Roman survivors gather in a cave and begin swapping origin stories. I shit you not. Nevertheless, Fassbender is certainly up to the job of a harden Roman Centurion. I swear, the man doesn’t have an inch of fat on him. Equally impressive is Olga Kurylenko as the Pict huntress Etain. The character has plenty of reasons to despise the Romans, and truth be told, Marshall’s script doesn’t really give us any real reasons to hate her. In fact, there isn’t really a real villain in the movie, with the exception of one of the Romans, who proves to be less honorable than the rest. And did I mention that Imogen Poots is incredibly easy on the eyes?
“Centurion” has already opened in the UK and is scheduled to land Stateside in limited release later this month. It will also be available in all the usual places, including instant video-on-demand and for download, but beyond those avenues, I don’t foresee a whole lot of opportunities for “Centurion” to slice and dice its way into the hearts and minds of the American mainstream. The bottom line is this: if you weren’t a fan of Neil Marshall coming in, you probably won’t be one leaving. The film never really rises to any level of “epic” (it’s actually quite sparse once you get past the initial Pict ambush of the Legion early on), and Marshall’s proclivities for hacking off limbs and dusting off characters left and right will come across as a bit much to newcomers. For those used to the man’s filmography, though, “Centurion” is everything you expected and wanted, so in that regard it’s a very successful Neil Marshall film.
By the way, here’s to Marshall finally getting that “Dog Soldiers” sequel together. What, you managed to get a sequel to “The Descent” up and running, but you can’t do the same for “Dog Soldiers”, Neil? Pish posh.
Neil Marshall (director) / Neil Marshall (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Fassbender … Quintus Dias
Dominic West … Virilus
Olga Kurylenko … Etain
Noel Clarke … Macros
David Morrissey … Bothos
JJ Feild … Thax
Imogen Poots … Arianne
Liam Cunningham … Brick
Ulrich Thomsen … Gorlacon