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Neil Marshall’s bloody medieval chase flick could very easily be dubbed “King Arthur: the prequel.” The 2004 Clive Owen-feautring King Arthur origin tale essentially picks up where this film ends with the building of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman fortification that stretched across what is now Northern England. Both films follow a small band of Roman centurion soldiers battling against the native warriors. Though similar in setting and tone, Centurion carves out its own gory slice of guilty pleasure.
Despite what is still a giddy action romp, Centurion continues to highlight Neil Marshall’s slide from his one-two punch horror debut with Dog Soldiers and The Descent. His very latest effort was the deliciously over-the-top apocalyptic throwback Doomsday, but I still hold hope that he can break free of this B-movie mold and recapture the spark that made him somewhat of an icon amongst horror fans. What continues to shine through in Marshall’s films is his prowess. The man knows how to shoot an action sequence and mounts the proceedings against stunning cinematography. He seems to understand that just because your movie employs schlocky subject matter doesn’t mean it has to look cheap.
Centurion is not your typical Gladiator-style epic offering, but is more or less a chase film in the vein of a traditional slasher film with an unrelenting force stalking its frantic prey. The threat exists in the form of The Picts, a Scottish tribe bent on repelling their Roman invaders. After a Pict attack on a remote Roman outpost, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) finds himself in captivity as the lone survivor. Escaping, he meets up with the Ninth Legion lead by the brash but beloved General Virilus (Dominic West). The Legion is immediately deployed into action and it is déjà vu for Dias as the legion is devastated in a guerrilla attack set up by the mute double agent Etain (Olga Kurylenko). It is then up to a small band of survivors including the general and Dias to make it back to the Roman lines.
Apart from the glossy production values, the biggest assets in Centurion are the performances by West and Fassbender. They ground the film amongst the gushing blood and dangling limbs, simultaneously propelling themselves further as ever-rising stars. Kurylenko has somewhat of a thankless role as the fierce warrior-woman but she makes the most of her lineless screen time. What I find odd about films set in this time and place, is the Roman’s are always portrayed as the heroes when in fact they are the ones invading the Celtic homeland. It would be refreshing to see a similar style film from the point of view of the native inhabitants.
Centurion has a lot going for it in terms of pure fun, but is certainly lacking in substance and an even tone. Marshall has also opted to shoehorn in a love story involving Dias and an exiled Pict which stands as a stark contrast to the gritty mayhem that perforates most of the narrative. Qualms aside, you could do worse than this straightforward but manic ancient action flick and looking at the movie year at large, Centurion looks better at every crimson-soaked visit.
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: Neil Marshall
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko