Neil Marshall's Centurion features a commitment to craft that helps overcome issues of storytelling by providing a visceral, violent experience designed to get you in your gut and bones more than in your heart or head. This is a brutal film about people determined to fight for their own cause, even if they're not completely clear on the purpose or inception of said cause. Unlike the cold experience of something like 300 or the trippy journey of a film like Valhalla Rising, Centurion strives for that rare feeling of realism in a period action/adventure with only a few stylish flourishes. With a very talented cast, Marshall returns to the form displayed by The Descent after the relative failure of the misstep of Doomsday and reminds us why he's been such a buzzed-about director in the first place.
In 117 A.D., the Roman Empire was on the fast track to take over the entire planet. A group of Roman Centurions was advancing through Britain and when they reached the northern edge of what would become the United Kingdom they stumbled upon a group of inhabitants known as the Picts. These violent warriors stood their ground and the legend goes that the Ninth Legion disappeared into the mist. Marshall uses this legend to draw characters within the myth starting with Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender of Hunger and Inglourious Basterds) and the leader Virilus (Dominic West of The Wire) on the side of the Romans and the deadly Etain (Olga Kurylenko) on the side of the Picts. Character development is minimal as location and battle were clearly the production priority but the great Fassbender and Kurylenko find a way to make an impact despite being sketchily written. Marshall's wife Axelle Carolyn and the rising star Imogen Poots (Solitary Man) are also memorable in small roles.
When I think of Centurion I think of dirt and blood. Some will be turned off by the lack of character or theme and I do think there's a stronger version of Centurion that doesn't sacrifice these elements for the sake of the realism of violence but it's the craft of the film that impresses and makes a lasting impact. Marshall ambitiously refuses to play hero or villain in Centurion, recognizing that the Romans were essentially a murdering-and-pillaging superpower but he also doesn't turn this into the story of a victorious underdog. He doesn't seem concerned about these elements (nor the film's obvious parallel to the war in Iraq) as much he is the atmosphere, grit, and grime of fighting for land and life in a part of the world that often makes that extremely difficult. As West's Virilus lays beaten and near-death in the frigid air or Fassbender runs for his life across a snowy plain, these moments of pain have a resonance that's often missing from this genre. Too often, period action films feel like people playing dress-up and Centurion displays Marshall's remarkably abilities with finding realism in a story that's nearly two centuries old. He sometimes gets carried away with his geysers of blood and when the film does rely on character, as it does in a final act love story and ridiculously overcooked final scene, it falters heavily.
And yet, despite the film's flaws, the relentless energy of the film carries it through its two-dimensionality. I can tear apart the lack of characterization or the relatively-generic plot, but I think filmmakers who are willing to take the chance and go for realism in a genre so often lacking it deserve praise. Centurion is a battle film, a work of bravura action in which every swing of the sword or thrust of a spear has a resonance so often missing from period films that feel like theme park recreations. It's not a perfect film, but it's still an accomplished one.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: Now playing in some markets, expanding to others and currently available On Demand
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Axelle Carolyn, and Imogen Poots
Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Neil Marshall