Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
Let me preface this review by warning you that I am an unabashed Neil Marshall fan. Marshall has yet to make a film that I didn’t enjoy wholeheartedly, which gives you an idea of the amount of gushing that is about to take place in this article. That isn’t to say that I’m not going to give this film its proper analysis, it just means that you’re getting a heavily biased review, simply because I like the works of this director and he’s made yet another awesome movie.
Centurion is the fictional tale of the final fate of the ninth legion, a Roman battalion that marched into the wilderness in 117 AD and was never seen again. Because so little is known about the massacre, Marshall was free to spin a legend out of what few bits of the story exist on record, and the result is nothing short of epic. Watching Centurion, all I kept thinking was “Gladiator only wishes it were as cool as this.
After the centurion Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is captured by Picts in a raid on the frontier fort where he was posted, he manages to make his escape only to be tracked by his captors. Fleeing through a forest, Dias encounters the Ninth Legion commanded by Titus Virilus (Dominic West) and following his rescue is welcomed into their ranks. The legion has been ordered into Caledonia to kill the Pictish king Gorlacon, but before they can arrive at their destination, the legion finds itself ambushed and most of its soldiers are brutally slaughtered. Betrayed by the legion’s scout Etain, who is a double-agent for the Picts, only Dias and a motley crew of six other survivors (including a cook) are left alive. They decide to try to rescue their general, whom they know the Picts have taken alive. Outnumbered and behind enemy lines, it’s a race against time to free the general and return to the Roman frontier.
For starters, this movie is gorgeous. Filmed in the Scottish highlands in winter, there are soooo many beautiful, sweeping shots of the snow-covered landscape. The opening credits, names displayed hovering over the mountains and valleys (a bit like the way place names are displayed on Fringe), are a delight to watch. The movie has a distinct visual style similar to that of Minority Report, with lots of blue and silver hues populating the frame, which not only gives the film a terrific, gritty feel, but also makes the bright red blood spatter that much more eye-catching. These cold colours reinforce the frigid plight of our heroes as they struggle through the frozen landscape, and even though I saw this in the middle of summer, I felt as though I was out in the cold with the soldiers.
One last word on the cinematography – the camera gets a bit choppy and wobbly during the action scenes, but it’s not as shakey as, say, the Bourne films, and since this style of quick-cut action scene seems to be in vogue right now, you can’t exactly damn the movie for that. It helps that the action is so cool that you can easily ignore the shakey camera work. As usual, Neil Marshall has brought us a slew of new gruesome deaths, and it amazes me that he always manages to show me something I’ve never seen before – in this case, a Pictish warrior’s head exploding as his body is slammed into a tree by a Roman soldier on horseback.
I really enjoy movies that see a small group of survivors desperately overcoming insurmountable odds to win the day in the face of adversity (such as The Poseidon Adventure or, y’know, every other film by Neil Marshall) because they allow for an ensemble cast of good actors playing great characters, each of whom gets to have a big moment all their own. Centurion has just such a cast, and even though the remnants of the ninth legion are mostly unknown actors, they all play their characters well. But the real stars of Centurion are Michael Fassbender as Quintas Dias and Olga Kurylenko as Etain, the mute Pictish scout. Kurylenko, in particular, owns every scene she is in, and considering that she does this without saying a word makes her all the more impressive as an antagonist.
I do have one complaint about Centurion, and it is the love story subplot that develops when Quintas Dias and company take refuge in the hut of a Pictish woman, cast out of her village because they thought she was a witch. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the character interaction or the nature of the romance, but it feels somewhat underdeveloped – more like an afterthought than the focus of the story. Still, this is a minor quibble, and the romance doesn’t detract from the overall plot of the film.
Centurion would make a great introductory film to the works of Neil Marshall, for while it displays his usual visual flair and trademark splatters of gore, it isn’t a horror movie. There’s great tension throughout, but it is more about stylish historical action than it is about jump-scares or monsters. Seeing as films like Gladiator have proven popular to wide audiences, Centurion will no doubt see its own popularity and will hopefully inspire viewers to seek out Marshall’s other works. As I said at the beginning of the review, I love Marshall’s films. I basically embody his target audience, and as such, it will take a real stinker for me to not recommend one of his movies to everyone. As such, I can’t say enough good things about Centurion. This is a smart action flick that makes for a great piece of summer entertainment, and I can’t wait to watch it again.
4 out of 5