REVIEW: Centurion [2010]

“A man without his word is no better than a beast”

Writer/director Neil Marshall has style and hopefully will continue to bring it forth on cinema screens for years to come, if he decides to travel back to America or not. Many lesser auteurs would have taken that Hollywood payday and looked for another to follow. Marshall, however, hot on the success of his spelunking horror/thriller The Descent, made Doomsday with US money only to see it falter out of the starting gate. Perhaps he had deals to remain stateside, but instead found himself back home in the UK to craft his war epic of Northern English history. Going back to 117 AD, Centurion relays the tale of the lost Roman Ninth Legion—the last ditch attempt by the great empire to oust guerilla Picts from England. With no survivors to tell the tale, Marshall’s film recalls a similar work of unknown bloodshed in 300, more portraying the heroism and courage of these men fighting for their land, for their general, and for their freedom than the facts.

A lot goes on during the first half of the movie, starting with an introduction to Michael Fassbender’s titular Centurion, Quintus Dias, as our narrator, it being neither the beginning of his story, nor the end. Second in command of his Roman force, his men are massacred mercilessly—Marshall never afraid to show exploding heads, pierced limbs, blood covered roads, or shrieking screams of pain and death—his survival only earned due to his ability to speak the Pict language. Brought back to their king, Ulrich Thomsen’s farmer turned murderer Gorlacon, the Centurion is cut and beaten, tortured to learn the whereabouts of his superiors and their next moves. Refusing to betray his empire as he bleeds in front of the king’s son, showing the young boy the face of his enemy, Dias soon finds escape, running through the snowy, mountainous expanse, captors on his trail and running towards a newly dispatched regime of Romans looking to take control of England once and for all.

These new men are the Ninth Legion, led by Dominic West’s General Titus Virilus, a man with the respect and kinship of his men. Volatile, unpredictable, and never afraid to partake in a drunken brawl or two while between missions, Virilus tells his superior, Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman), that he won’t send his men on a death march into a fight he cannot win. One mention of insubordination and treason for ignoring a direct order changes his tune, and they set off with a Pict guide to lead the charge. Tongue-less Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is equal parts beauty and warrior; never afraid to let the men around her know her formidability. She is the one who leads them onto the path of Dias and his pursuers, allowing Virilus to save the gladiator and befriend him as a second in command, the Centurion’s father an idol of his after having seeing the man fight for freedom years before. Joining forces, the Romans trek on while Etain disappears into the fog, carefully treading behind her until the snap of a tree cracks through the sky, the fallen trunk trapping them in the valley, unable to do anything but wait for their enemy.

And boy do they make an entrance. Throughout this 97-minute opus of carnage, sharp cuts clumsily transition, causing the audience to lose their bearings ever so slightly, making you wonder at the fact this film ran a full thirty minutes longer when screened in Finland. But if anything was saved from the cutting room floor, it was the frenetic fight sequences of kill after kill and the precursors to each sparring session. When the Picts have the Ninth Legion ripe for destruction, Marshall does well to make us feel the trepidation and suspense, hearing the officers scream, “Keep watching”, as they all look up the mist-shrouded hills, awaiting the giant fireballs soon to roll down and break their lines. We see each and every one hit the Romans, pushing them off-balance, just in time for the savages to pounce and the metal to clang into the sky. There are no extended man-to-man interludes; it is all just one long kinetically cut sequence of killshot after killshot. One sword impales an adversary and another does him. Blood flies and heads roll until Virilus is taken and Dias is knocked into a ditch, piled over by his lifeless comrades.

All this and the film is only halfway complete. The rest of the quest sees Fassbender’s tentative leader take on the best soldiers he has ever laid eyes upon, unsure if he is worthy to be their general. Reduced to a small band of about six fighters and one cook—Riz Ahmed’s Tarak is quite deft with his cleaver, however—they now must go on the run, trying what they can to find home as Etain’s true allegiances are uncovered, Gorlacon sending her to track them so as to leave no Roman alive. It becomes a cat and mouse chase through the woods and rocky cliff faces, the men looking to get behind the Picts and find sanctuary. It seems as though the Roman leadership have decided to change plans after learning of the Ninth’s defeat, though, recalling men and for all intents and purposes leaving England for good. Dias and his men are now caught behind enemy lines without help, the odds stacked against them for survival.

The final half gets the adrenaline pumping just as much as the first and for once a movie shows that no matter how big the actor’s name or how high his character’s rank, every single man on the battlefield is at risk to meet his maker. Marshall is unyielding in his depiction of the carnage and rightfully juxtaposes the brutality with the majestic landscapes of Northern England’s snow-covered hills. With plenty of longshots, you begin to feel the scope and distance of what is laid out before these men. Running on foot with little sustenance to sustain them, they carry on. West, Fassbender, David Morrissey’s Bothos and Liam Cunningham’s Brick show the mettle needed to survive with insurmountable forces to overcome, each with moments of humor to temper the severe attitude their warriors possess. Kurylenko becomes a bit of a one-note vessel of evil, but that is her job and it’s handled expertly; as is the lone source of hope on an otherwise blood-soaked trajectory in Pict witch Arianne, played by Imogen Poots. Each character fires true and hits his/her mark—whether this is Marshall’s true version or a cut down one on behalf of the producers—delivering a highly enjoyable experience.

Centurion 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] Dominic West in CENTURION, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
[2] Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko in CENTURION, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

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