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- Movie: Centurion
- Rating: R
- Running Time: 1 hrs. 37 min.
- Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Imogen Poots, Noel Clarke, Dimitri Leonidas, Riz Ahmed and Paul Freeman
- Written By: Neil Marshall
- Directed By: Neil Marshall
- Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
CENTURION Movie Review
Something May Be Gaining On You
By Rob Vaux
August 27, 2010
If Neil Marshall missed a step with Doomsday, he surely regains it with Centurion. Lean, riveting, and taking no prisoners, it indulges only sporadically in the derivative references which sank his previous effort, and makes up for the lapses with the same crackling tension which marked Dog Soldiers and The Descent.
His topic is ancient Rome, though not the same sword-and-sandals Rome which marks most historical epics. He takes us to the wilds of northern England, where the famous Ninth Legion vanished without a trace some 2,000 years ago. Centurion posits a possible explanation for their eventual fate—slaughtered at the hands of Pictish tribes in the midst of grinding the mightiest army in the world to a standstill—but it doesn’t largely care about the specifics. Instead, it uses the battle as a means of exploring the honor and savagery on both sides, wrapped up in a first-rate chase picture.
The bulk of the action starts after the Ninth buys it, wiped out on the road by an enemy who knows the woods too well. A cluster of survivors gather under the leadership of Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), and—following an abortive attempt to rescue their general (Dominic West)—high tail it back to the Roman lines. Unfortunately, their efforts result in the death of the Pictish leader’s son, sending the tribe into a frenzy and the hounds of hell on their path. With a mute, vengeance-obsessed tracker (Olga Kurylenko) behind them and miles of frozen wilderness in front of them, it becomes a game to see how many will survive to the closing credits.
Marshall peppers the chase with a number of sharp set pieces, spattered in blood and reveling in the kind of savagery that frankly scares big-budget Hollywood to death. Centurion never goes overboard, however, keeping the bloodshed in staccato rabbit punches rather than Piranha-style excess. The brutality works as stimulus response, but also because we connect to the characters on both sides of the equation. The Picts have real grievances; the Romans just want to survive.
Marshall declines to judge either side. He simply puts them in motion and lets the audience decide whether anyone merits our sympathies. At times, we feel for everyone and no one, so bound up in the inherent drama that any outcome holds copious interest. Among other things, it means that we can entertain the real possibility that no one will survive, with an accompanying elevation in the suspense.
Centurion compliments the chase with a solid visual look, as the Legionnaires’ distinctive uniforms contrast sharply against the woods and snowscapes in which they find themselves. Marshall adopts the same film stock used by every historical adventure since Saving Private Ryan. Though not particularly original, it matches the storyline well, while giving the vistas a harsh, unforgiving tone that further bonds us to the figures scurrying across it.
A few late-inning dramatics muddy the waters a bit, particularly a convenient savior in the form of a local witch (Imogen Poots) and some standard-issue Roman scheming tacked onto the finale.
Marshall can’t avoid riffing on the classics either, most notably in a re-creation of the cliff scene from Butch and Sundance which could have used a twist or two to spice it up. But the director remains true to his own vision far more often than cribbing someone else’s, and though comparatively humble in its intents, he attains a great deal more here than many of overstuffed A-list adventures earlier in the summer. Keep it quick, keep it simple and respect your material; you might just end up blowing everyone’s socks off. Marshall has learned this lesson well, and Centurion benefits from his experience.