Are you not entertained?
While Centurion is only connected to Gladiator by virtue of being a long-tail part of the sword and sandal resurgence that Ridley Scott’s movie prompted, Maximus’ quote perfectly encapsulates the point of Neil Marshall’s newest film: it’s damn entertaining.
All too often the reaction to a solid, well made genre film is disappointment. It seems like of late that fans demand every movie reinvent the genre or bring a wacky skew on it or comment on it in a post-modern way. Hey, I love that too, but I also love a simple meat and potatoes genre film, and Centurion is that movie; a ripping yarn, this story of a group of Roman legionnaires trapped behind enemy lines in primitive Britain is just a good tale well told.
Neil Marshall stacks the deck with his casting. Yeah, this is a super-gory hack and slash movie, but it stars Michael Fassbender, one of the most stunning actors of his generation. If you somehow doubt this claim please immediately run and see Hunger, the Bobby Sands movie from director Steve McQueen (different guy), where Fassbender delivers a performance that will melt the very synapses of your brain. While he’s not called on to do that kind of unreal acting in Centurion he certainly isn’t slumming it; Fassbender’s powerful central performance gives the movie a weight that grounds the proceedings. His titular Centurion becomes the heart and soul of the film, and even if you can see where his arc is going from a ways out, Fassbender delivers each and every beat of it with conviction.
Ably abetting Fassbender is a group of terrific actors. Dominic West plays a rough and tumble Roman general, and he’s a character who leaves you wanting more in the best way possible. The venerable Liam Cunningham is a venerable soldier, and he brings humanity and warmth to his role. And Olga Kurylenko is dynamite as a mute Pict tracker, a murderous force of nature who is just as stunning look as she is deadly in the field. The actress has a feral ferocity, and by having her tongue cut out Marshall avoids the problem of her delivering lines. She’s lethal and sexy and awesome.
The premise of the film is fairly simple; the Roman 9th Legion is dispatched into Northern Britain to take care of the native Picts, who have been waging a very effective guerrilla warfare against the invaders. Students of history know that the 9th disappeared into thin air, and Marshall’s film fills in the blanks in the first act before turning into a crackerjack chase film; only a few surviving Romans are left after the Picts bring a devastating attack, and their attempt to rescue a prisoner serves to only inflame the hatred of the natives. As the ragtag group of Romans – which includes brave Centurions as well as lowly cooks – attempts to make their way to safety across hundreds of miles of stark, unforgiving enemy territory they are brutally and relentlessly pursued.
This film is, at its heart, a riff on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Super Posse here is Kurylenko and her group, and the Romans even do a Butch and Sundance inspired jump from a high cliff into a river. While Centurion doesn’t have a central duo as strong as Redford and Newman, it does have a group of characters that Marshall manages to sketch quickly and well. One of the biggest problems with Clash of the Titans is that the movie abandoned its band of Greeks to be nameless, faceless cannon fodder; Centurion, on the other hand, seems to understand the brotherhood of men in war, and it allows these characters to have a bawdy, roughhouse connection that makes the individuals work so much better. Make no mistake – this isn’t a character piece. Still, Marshall – working from his own script – gives each of the survivors of the 9th Legion massacre just enough of a spark that when they get picked off one by one – whether it be by the elements, the Picts or ravenous wolves – you feel a little something. The movie’s not afraid to take a couple of minutes around the campfire to bring some humor and humanity.
It’s also not afraid to demolish that humanity in as bloody and nasty a fashion possible. There’s a whole battle scene that is about five minutes of nothing but money shots – cleaving, hewing, hacking, severing, beheading. Marshall knows the genre and he knows what we want, and what we want is to see a sword lop off the top of a guy’s head. Brutally violent and bloody, Centurion delivers the action goods again and again. Those who complained about Marshall’s penchant for shakycam will be disappointed as he’s still moving that lens about, but for the rest of us who can enjoy the kinetic feel of that style Marshall uses it well and to great effect. This isn’t a big budget movie, but the combination of exciting, active camerwork and smart use of the desolate and evocative UK locations gives the film a look well beyond its means.
The reality is that Centurion
will not show you anything new. It will not redefine the hack and slash genre, it won’t wow you with its clever references and callbacks, it won’t be the greatest movie you see in theaters (it may, however, surprise you with its subtle and well-integrated Iraq War subtext). It will be a great time at the theater, a fun movie that doesn’t stoop to being stupid or pandering to deliver solid action thrills. There will be many moronic big budget movies this year filled with nothing but senseless explosions and flat characters where people will say you have to leave your brain at the door. Fuck those movies. Instead enjoy a movie like Centurion
, filled with great physical action and fun characters and that never once asks you to forget that you have a brain in your head. Characters matter. Story matters. Good in-camera action matters. Centurion matters.
7.5 out of 10