Running time: 97 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, grisly images and language.
Written and directed by: Neil Marshall
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Imogen Poots, David Morrissey, Andreas Wisniewski, Dave Legeno, Axelle Carolyn
If Neil Marshall’s Centurion can be believed, than the Celtic tribe of Picts, circa 117 AD, were some quite nasty customers. If your interest runs in the study of medieval weapons and battle tactics, including the way a tribal blade can ruefully tear away at a victim’s esophagus, then this bonzo collection of gore, guts and guerrilla warfare might be right up your alley. Even if those grittier bits don’t take, then fans of the historical epic might still want to get in line. Marshall, ever a canny observer of macho carnage, delivers his tale of a buggered Roman battalion behind enemy lines in bold, bloody strokes that feel immediate and real.
Taking place in Roman occupied Northern Britain, Centurion tells the story of a small handful of Roman soldiers who survive a surprise ambush by Pictish warriors—led by the scout turned traitor Etain (Olga Kurylenko)—and then must make their way across the Scottish hills, evading the Pict hunting party while trying to save their captured commander and themselves. Think of it as The Warriors meets Last of the Mohicans Vs. Gladiator. Marshall is so taken with the details of the time period that often the costuming, set design and cinematography obscure the individuality of his characters. Their fates tied together, the motley group of six survivors are almost indistinguishable from one another. Only Fassbender (Hunger) as the heroic Quintus Dias and Kurylenko as the feral, vengeful Etain make any kind of lasting imprint upon the memory. What does make an impression is the way Marshall stages his man-on-the-run tale, which manages to entertain at the same time it accurately evokes the cold, inhuman dread of extended warfare.
Although it’s going to be dismissed in some circles as just a tiresome bit of grueling battle porn, that’s far away the truth from what Centurion actually is. Horrifically violent for sure, the film is never exploitative or as indulgent as many of its brethren are (the toonish 300 comes to mind). In fact, while the sound effects guys must have had a ball figuring out how to replicate the sound of a garroted neck falling in sallow earth, we only see quick visual flashes of the moment of impact. Instead, Marshall often focuses in on the facial expressions of those inflicting the damage. There’s a fearsome immediacy to watching Etain’s sadness and rage as she decapitates a soldier that could never be captured by simply watching the blade pass along the throat .When West’s Virilus and his men are set upon by the Picts in the film’s bombastic ambush sequence, Marshall encapsulates the entirety of the Roman occupation of Britain in one barbaric collapse. This is one of the finest medieval battle scenes in film, and the sense of loss and desolation when it’s over are be worthy of a more somber picture.
Instead of keeping that tone, though, Marshall ramps up the quest of Quintus and his men to get back home. The rest is a fast-paced, single-minded race for survivial. It doesn’t feel like the overheated contents of a two-dimensional graphic novel, but instead hearkens backwards in cinema history to films like The Naked Prey, Jeremiah Johnson and even the silent film version of The Most Dangerous Game. Unlike Zach Snyder, whose output keeps to comics and video games, Marshall seems to have an extensive, intimate knowledge of the history of action filmmaking. The camera cranes across in wide-shots of the Scottish hills, capturing Quintus and company scrabbling like rabbits, while Etain stands like a phantom reaper, looking down on them. As the film progresses, the narrative hits rocky terrain, and by the time we reach the climax, it has all but unraveled. The script is so focused on Quintus, and in contrast, his female Pictish counterpart, that when their struggle is resolved, there’s nowhere else to go.
So, yes, Centurion has started to run out of steam by the time it winds down, and a more textured script, willing to explore the binding ties of men in wartime, might have served it better. Then again, it’s hard to say if it would have the same visceral thump it possesses now. Fassbender gives a strong and believable performance as a man trying to hold onto some sense of moral intuition when his enemies have stopped making sense to him. The men who surround him are little more than faces seen by firelight, or racing, mud covered visages, caught in the heat of combat. Imogen Poots as a suspected sorceress who gives the men refuge provides Centurion with the only traces of softness, compassion and grace that it has. Kurylenko is the scene stealer as a woman whose life was destroyed by the Romans before it had even truly begun, and although her severed tongue prevents her from uttering a word she makes her body language shout bitter, unspoken rage that echoes across the harsh wilderness. West has little more than a small role, but in it he gives a face to the decadence and unfettered lust of Rome the empire.
This is Marshall’s fourth foray into the sub-genre of survival thrillers. His last three, Dog Soldiers, The Descent, and Doomsday were all variations on the theme of what happens to the primal side of human nature when its continued existence is threatened. All were worthy pictures, with Descent being the best of the lot because of the way it attacked genre conventions and our expectations about cinematic aggression. After Centurion, which probably follows as second best of that motley group, this particular well is probably dry. I suspect, Marshall might have done that on purpose. Centurion is so brutal and forthright, so dedicated to the darker, hidden face of savagery, that I think it means to have the final word on the subject of ‘band on the run’. It isn’t often that a single film aspires to gut punch a particular narrative into submission, but Centurion does just that, grinning through bloodied teeth with an irreverent sort of joy.