When British director Neil Marshall isn’t making excellent horror films like Dog Soldiers and The Descent, he is making action movies. Fairly mediocre action movies. His last attempt at the action genre, the post-apocalyptic Doomsday, was both a critical and financial failure. Which was why I was skeptical about Marshall’s next crack at the action genre, Centurion, a men on a mission film set in Roman Britain. Does the director redeem himself with this sword and sandals thriller, or should he just go back to doing what he does best?
Spoilers to follow.
The Roman Empire is at its peak, spanning from Egypt in the south to Britain in the north. from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. Her borders are in a state of constant conflict, as the natives of these far reaches are not eager to be added to the ranks of the conquered. One such conflict rages in the province of Britannia, where the local Roman governor tasks General Titus Virilus (Dominic West) with wiping out the Pictish resistance in the far north. With the aid of a Pict tracker named Etain (Olga Kurylenko) the General and his 9th Legion are certain their campaign will be successful. Predictably Etain turns coat and leads the army into a trap; the legion is decimated and its general kidnapped. It is then up to a band of survivors, led by Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), to rescue the general and escape back to friendly soil.
It’s a great setup, but one that only partially fulfills its promise by the end. As I mentioned in my review of The Expendables, half the fun of the men on a mission film is hearing about the character’s backstories and seeing how they fit in with the group. In Centurion we get only a few very short scenes for character development. Each soldier is given maybe a sentence worth of exposition, if they were lucky, to explain who they are and where they were from. I only ended up caring about a few of the good guys, particularly the grizzled veteran Brick (Liam Cunningham). He has got the classic “I’m too old for this shit” routine and is given some of the best lines and most badass moments in the entire film. Aside from Fassbender’s character, I just didn’t care about any of the others.
Then there is the Roman formality filmmakers often imbue these period pictures with. Overly ceremonious dialogue fits the military tone of the film, but serves to further alienate the audience from the characters. When Fassbender isn’t narrating the film, he’s speaking to the other characters in decorous absolutes that would make the most skilled orators blush. Inspiring? Maybe. But pretty speech and fancy words may not be exactly what these guys want to hear with arrows, axes and clubs are raining down on them.
Speaking of sharp objects flying at our heroes, Centurion is bloody awesome in this respect. Literally. The action is well staged and does not let up for the entire film. If there is one thing the movie does well, it’s capture the brutality of Iron Age combat. Warriors on both sides are cut, stabbed, hacked, speared, bludgeoned, dismembered and decapitated in all manner of horrible ways. Centurion is a parade of gore, tantamount to a two hour lesson in what a Roman gladius can do to a man.
When blood isn’t flowing on screen, the audience is treated to beautiful Lord of the Rings style helicopter shots of our heroes charging through fields, forests and mountains. It’s amazing what a nice landscape can do for a film, adding needed scope and grandeur to what would otherwise be a very claustraphobic chase movie. The impressive costumes and big sets also aid the film in looking bigger than its budget. The film offers blockbuster spectacle on a shoestring budget of only $25 million (Update: Axelle Carolyn, who played Pict warrior Aeron and is also Marshall’s wife, informed us via Twitter that the budget was closer to $14 million)
Centurion could easily have been another mediocre effort by Marshall if it were not for the combination of amazing action, a great cast and above average production values. Sadly, paper thin characters, some hokey dialogue and an overly long third act spoil the show, ultimately making the historical actioner an only slightly above-average film.