A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2010


2010, R, 97 mins.


Quintus Dias: Michael Fassbender / Titus Virilus: Dominic West / Etain: Olga Kurylenko / Arianne: Imogen Poots / Macros: Noel Clarke

Wwritten and directed by Neil Marshall

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.

The 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 highlands.   Roman 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).   

After 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. 

Unfortunately 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. 

On 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. 

Even 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.     

Marshall 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. 

But, 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. 

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