Here’s a question: Do you like movies about gladiators? Or: Are you ready for an end-of-summer action flick about angry guys swinging swords at each other? Are you like me, and you think Gladiator was just a little too serious and 300 wasn’t remotely serious enough? If so, then Centurion is the sweet spot. If you want to see a rough-and-tumble, unpretentious, sturdy, skillful, fun and efficient gladiator flick, you’re gonna want to seek out Neil Marshall’s newest.
Neil Marshall is a director who guys like me have been championing for a while now. He’s a British filmmaker who has absorbed all of the great genre movies, and is re-deploying all of those cinematic references into unsentimental and entertaining-as-hell movies that so far haven’t hit huge in the States. (I’m not sure how he’s been received in his native England, but clearly he has a steady career going, turning out a film every two or three years, which is a nice pace.) In Dog Soldiers, he did werewolves. In The Descent, he did cave horror. In Doomsday, he riffed on everything from The Road Warrior to Escape From New York and back. Now he’s doing period action.
Centurion is actually based on history, to a point. The super-badass Ninth Legion of the Roman Army was dispatched to eliminate the native Pict warriors from captured territory, and were apparently never heard from again. Taking this historical tidbit, Marshall extrapolates the story of Quintus Dias, played by the crazy-talented Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds), who joins up with the Ninth after his own squadron is massacred by the Picts. (The Picts in this movie are primitive but expert at killing, kind of like the Na’vi from Avatar – only somewhat less blue.) The Ninth Legion is led by General Virilus, a fist-swinging guy’s guy played by Dominic West, best known to us Yanks as lovable lout Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. This is by far West’s coolest role post-McNulty, and I had a great time every moment he was on screen – as I’m sure he himself did.
That’s the essential appeal of Centurion – it’s a guy’s guy kind of movie. The action scenes are solid and plentiful, and the ball-busting banter is equally fun. It fits snugly into Marshall’s growing filmography as a superior genre filmmaker. If I had to pick at faults, I’d say that Marshall’s movies often fall back on the conventions established by his obvious influences. Centurion is one of those movies where the ensemble cast is gradually decimated, leaving only the main protagonist – Marshall is now four for four in that regard – and I wonder if the movie would have been more satisfying had that formula not been maintained.
Also, unlike his previous two movies, Centurion doesn’t leave much room for the ladies. The Descent was an all-female cast, refreshingly, and Doomsday had a lead performance by Rhona Mitra (much more fun to look at than pretty much any other action star you’re thinking of), but Centurion has just two significant female roles. One is Olga Kurylenko, from Hitman and Quantum Of Solace, as a mute Pict warrior and tracker. She’s a formidable opponent in this flick, to be sure, but compared to how charismatic Fassbender and West get to be, it’s a thankless role. Then there’s Imogen Poots, whose name is a sentence. She plays a conspicuously attractive hermit who Quintus hooks up with while on the run. The love story isn’t unwelcome, necessarily, but by the time it finally appears in the story, late in the movie, it feels somewhat shoehorned.
Those are relatively minor criticisms of a generally satisfying film from a genre director who will only continue to get better. You could argue that Neil Marshall leans pretty heavily on his influences, but then again so do Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and his countryman Edgar Wright. Not awful company to be in. Hopefully Marshall will start getting even a fraction of the press that those other guys do. He just plain makes the kind of movies I like, and I’ll be happy to keep watching whatever he does next. As for you, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, start with Centurion. It’s a red-blooded action flick (literally) that demands and deserves credit for bothering to be one, at a time when so many others pull their punches. Centurion owns its R rating, and that’s a beautiful kind of ugly thing.