Review by L.L. Soares
When I heard that Neil Marshall’s new movie was about Roman soldiers fighting the barbaric Picts in ancient Britain, I thought it sounded like an interesting departure. Marshall is probably best known for low-budget horror flicks like DOG SOLDIERS (2002) where soldiers fought werewolves, and THE DESCENT (2005), where a group of women spelunkers came across strange bat-like monsters that had a taste for humans in a maze of unexplored caves. CENTURION, being a non-horror period piece, sounded like a nice change of pace.
Of course, Marshall being Marshall, there’s plenty of violence and gore. So it’s not that far removed from his horror movie roots.
CENTURION tells the story of Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who, when we first see him, is running – his hands bound – from Picts on horseback who have been holding him prisoner. Luckily for him, General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) and his men of the Ninth Legion come along just in time to kill his pursuers and cut his ropes. In return, Dias is told he has to go back into the lion’s den to show the legion where the enemies are, so that the Romans can rid the region of the barbarians once and for all.
Unfortunately, the Roman occupation of Britain has been going on for 20 years by now, and they haven’t made much headway. The Picts won’t play by the rules and use guerilla methods while the Romans insist on marching in formation and following protocol. Instead of changing their fighting style, the Romans remain stubborn, insistent that their way of fighting is the only way, to their own detriment. Virilus and his men are the most celebrated Legion in the area, and have been given the mission of putting an end to the decades of fighting. Of course, there is no reason to believe the Ninth is going to succeed where the legions before them have all failed.
Virilus and his men are given their marching orders from Governor Julius Agricola (Paul Freeman), a typical politician who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, but who is sick of the damp climate of Britain and wants to go home. He wants Virilus to wrap things up and end the war. To help him, Agricola tells him to take Etain (Olga Kurylenko) with him, a Pict woman who is now on the Roman side. She’s mute, a master tracker and a strong fighter, but she’s also a traitor who leads Virilus’s troops into an ambush. Most of the Romans are slaughtered and the general is carried away by barbarians.
Quintus Dias, one of the few survivors, is now in charge of the remaining men and takes them on a mission to free Virilus from his captors, but things aren’t so easy. In fact, nothing in this movie goes easily for the Romans. The rest of the film involves the handful of survivors trying to get back to “civilization” while being pursued relentlessly by the huntress and her posse of axe-wielding killers.
There’s not much else going on aside from trying to stay ahead of the bad guys and staying alive in the second half, except for a brief interlude in the cabin of a “witch woman”named Arianne (Imogen Poots) who gives some of the battle-weary survivors shelter and food. She’s a beauty with a scar, whom Dias takes a shining to.
For fans of movies and TV shows about the Roman Empire (HBO’s ROME (2005-2007), PBS’s I, CLAUDIUS (1976) and Bob Guccione’s notorious CALIGULA (1979) come to mind), you’ll have a good time with CENTURION. There’s just something compelling about this point in history. This isn’t a big budget spectacle like Russell Crowe in GLADIATOR (2000), but it’s exciting enough to whet your appetite. This is a low-budget monster movie, but instead of monsters we’ve got barbarians who can strike at a moment’s notice. And there’s plenty of blood, axes to the forehead and decapitations to keep you happy. For the most part the acting is good but not spectacular. People do what they’re supposed to do. Although Fassbender keeps your interest as a plausible leader, and Dominic West (THE WIRE, PUNISHER WAR ZONE (2008)) is always enjoyable enough, even if he doesn’t have enough screen time here.
To get an idea of what Marshall had in mind when he made the film, he said in a recent interview that he sought to make “the anti-300.” Where 300 was all CGI and high-tech effects, CENTURION is small-scale and raw, with not a trace of computer animation to be scene. Marshall accomplishes his goal nicely.
This is a solid little movie. You’ll leave the theater feeling it was an enjoyable film. It just won’t satisfy you the same way Marshall’s best films do.
© Copyright 2010 by L.L. Soares