A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2010
2010, R, 97 mins.
2010, R, 97 mins.
Quintus Dias: Michael Fassbender / Titus Virilus: Dominic West / Etain:
Olga Kurylenko / Arianne: Imogen Poots / Macros: Noel
CENTURION may be set in a historical period of the distant past, but no one should ever confuse it for being a history film. Last time I checked, I doubt that ancient Roman soldiers dropped modern-day s and f-bombs with a roguish bravado, nor did they use contemporary colloquialisms like “Let’s ditch the armor.” Yet, in defense of Neil Marshall’s period film is…well…the writer/director himself: during an interview he commented that CENTURION is “not meant to be historically perfect. I’m picking up on a legend and exploring it…it’s an action thriller.”
That’s perhaps the best way for
the discerning and nitpicky film critic in me to approach this film: If
looked at for its period authenticity and lessons from ancient history,
then many scholars will be undoubtedly frustrated by CENTURION.
However, for the less academic viewer and one that wants to see a
well oiled, gritty, rough and ready, and brutally visceral splattergorium
action picture, then the film certainly delivers on the maker’s intended
promises. You want historical veracity, consult some text books; you
want a decent sword and sandal gorefest of wanton carnage that involves
beheadings, slit throats, eviscerations of all kinds, and human limbs and
volcanic geysers of CGI blood sprayed all over the movie frame...then...hail
Caesar, this is your film.
setting is Britannia of 117 A.D. and we are introduced to Quintus Dias
(Michael Fassbender, a great casting coup for this type of film if there ever
was one) that is a centurion in the Roman Army that is the last known
survivor of a hellish attack on a Roman fortress in the Scottish
legions have been pushed deep into the highlands attempting to gain
control of a region that their sworn enemies, the Picts, occupy and these
nomadic, guerrilla tactical Picts want to have no army invade their lands
and take control of what they see is their homeland (thankfully, the
screenplay spares us of any heavy handed politicizing of the modern day
conflict in Iraq, which no doubt could have been tempting).
a daring Pictish raid decimates the aforementioned Roman outpost on the
frontier, Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to unleash the
full fury of the legendary Ninth Legion, which is led by General Titus
Virilus (the splendid and imposing Dominic West) with orders to kill the
Picts - all of them - without any mercy.
Problems surface in this quest with the capture of Quintus, but
through some ingenuity, determination, and sheer will power, he manages to
escape his Pict captors and, through the most inhospitable terrain and
lands, reconnects with Titus’ army and begins to reformulate a new plan
of attack to rid the world of the Picts once and for all.
for the legion, their plans are put on hold during a fireball-laden attack
by the Picts that is set in motion by a Pict tracker that was once loyal
to Rome, Etain (former eye-gasmic Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who manages to embody a raw sex
appeal with a feral tenacity and animalistic thirst for blood that most
easy-on-the-eyes actresses can’t). Etain
once worked for the legion, but she certainly has her grievances for wanting to turn on them: she once had her tongue cut out by the
Romans as a child (yuck). During
the sneak attack the legion does incur some heavy casualties, not to
mention that General Titus is kidnapped and stashed away at the camp where
the head Pict (Ulrich Thompson) makes his life very, very difficult.
Realizing that they have, at this point, nothing to really lose,
Quintus decides to band together the last few men from the legion to
command an audacious and potentially life-threatening rescue attempt,
after which they hope to eliminate the Pict-thorn in their collective
sides forever. Of course, the Picts are no pushovers as warriors, as they
have sworn solemn oaths to kill any Roman on contact, not to mention that
Etain makes for a most formidable opponent, even though she looks mighty
fine underneath her warrior garb and battle face paint.
a negative, there is not much in the way of a plot or character
development in CENTURION: this is essentially a “men-on-a-mission” war
film morphed with a chase picture. The
characters themselves are a conglomeration of stock types that we have
seen countless times before, and with so many of them being maimed in one
form or another during the film’s multitude of barbaric and messy
battles it becomes really hard to identify with any of them.
I will say that I did like Fassbender’s off-center casting here,
who brings a level of gravitas to the proceedings as his battle-scarred
man of war. Dominic West also
brings some fiery tenacity and brutish charisma to the film as the Roman
general hell bent on kicking some Pictish ass.
And Olga Kurylenko makes a completely plausible turn as her mute
Pict soldier that can easily mix it up with the big Roman boys.
She has the most ravenous eyes and, as her role in QUANTUM
OF SOLACE demonstrated, she can take the form of a sex symbol with
ease, but I was surprised by how intimidating and frightening of a
presence she is in CENTURION. Her
outward sultriness masks an inner torment and savage hostility.
though the story and characters are a mix bagged at best, CENTURION more
than makes up for these shortcomings in the arena of spectacle and action
intrigue. This film may feel
like GLADIATOR-lite, but it can easily match that film’s unapologetic
gore quotient…and then some. Yes,
the film may indulge itself a bit too often with some very obvious CGI
blood letting (which makes the screen look more like an perverted abstract
painting than the scene of a battle more often than not), but there
is no doubt that Marshall and company make CENTURION’s skirmishes with a
considerable flair, intensity, and infectiously trashy allure.
The film is absolutely awash with all forms of injustices
perpetrated on the human body by things ranging from swords, knives,
rocks, and anything else that can serve a blunt-force weapon of death.
The parade of exploding brain and blood matter mixed in with
graphic images of multiple severed limbs shown in all of their visceral
glory shows Marshall to be a real maestro (or perhaps sadist) when it
comes to bone-crunching and artery spewing action.
The film makes no apologies for being a giddily enjoyable bloodbath
of epic proportions.
has emerged as a filmmaker that can use incredibly modest budgets to make
films look like their higher financed Hollywood cousins.
He developed a loyal cult following and critical respect with his
2005 horror film THE DESCENT and then made a sensationalistic and sordid
grindhouse ode to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK with DOOMSDAY,
which used its meager $30 million price tag to make this small film look
that much more impressively larger. Now,
with an even lower sum (apparently $20 million), Marshall and his clever
and resourceful cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, make glorious use of the
widescreen frame to evoke luscious panoramic shots of the rugged and
foreboding terrain of dense, fog-laden forests and snow covered
mountaintops. With so many
modern Hollywood action films today budgeted north of
$100-150 million released with lackluster visual results, it’s kind of refreshing to
see filmmakers like Marshall create images and scenes of visual interest
and ingenuity with a limited cash flow.
CENTURION may have cost as much as a direct-to-video feature, but
it rarely looks like one.
alas, the film does have some other notable problems, like the way it kind of
meanders to a finale that lacks a satisfy wallop and especially in the form
of a force-fed and hackneyed subplot featuring a forest-dwelling “witch” (played by the beautiful and talented Imogen Poots,
last seen stealing scenes from Michael Douglas in SOLITARY
MAN) that gives Fassbender’s men a safe haven from their
pursuers. Yet, for as
skeletal as the story is in CENTURION and for as historically erroneous
as it comes across at times, I nonetheless modestly appreciated the film
as a relentlessly envisioned, fast-moving, hard edged, and innovatively
realized (especially considering its cost) Roman-era action film that
wholeheartedly accomplishes what it aimed to do.
I can only dream of what Marshall could come up with if given an
astronomical Michael Bay-ian budget.