History is written in blood.
So…what happened to the Ninth Legion? This mythic tale of a Roman army that vanished in the wilderness of Britain in 117 AD has been a source of fiction-spinning for some time. So why not take a stab at it (both literally and figuratively)?
Director Neil Marshall has crafted a simple, familiar narrative: a Roman soldier named Quintus (Michael Fassbender, the “we will fight in the shade” guy from 300) escapes captivity from the brutal, indigenous Picts and ends up with the famous Ninth Legion. Under the command of a well-regarded general (Dominic West, 300), the Legion has been given orders to pacify the wilds of Britain and wipe out the Picts and their guerilla warfare.
None of that happens of course, and, a bloody massacre later, only a handful of Romans survive, trapped deep within the enemy’s borders, a band of merciless fighters led by a bodacious warrior princess (Olga Kurylenko).
I don’t know if Neil Marshall had any high-minded ideas for allegory when he set out to make Centurion (I recall reading an interview where he implied some sort of contemporary metaphor), but, regardless, the fruit of this brutal, fleet-of-foot film is not to speak truth to power; it’s to spill blood and weave a satisfying B-movie adventure.
Centurion had been on my radar for a while as I am an absolute pushover for this kind of period, sword-swinging action. Its hyper-limited release never brought it within proximity, so I was left pining.
Finally, it is in my hands and I am happy to report that Marshall’s fearsome little opus is a treat; a fast-moving, sinew-spewing, red-meat affair. He’s taken a story that we’ve all seen at some point in our entertainment exposure, set it against a cool historical backdrop, populated it with bad-asses from top to bottom and turned on the gas.
Again, the story should be familiar — our heroes are stranded in enemy territory and have to fight their way out. The missing Ninth Legion myth gives Marshall an ideal canvas to paint on and pitting the handful of surviving Romans (who default to the Alpha setting) against a relentless barbarian attack makes for a tense stand-off. Stripped of their comrades and technology, the Romans are on less-than-equal footing with their adversaries.
At first glance, Olga Kurylenko would seem an odd casting choice for the main heavy, but she’s an inspired choice. Marshall follows his trend of injecting strong female characters in his films and I love that the girl power displayed in Centurion happens to occupy the deranged, terrifying villain role. After a short time I reckon you won’t even consider her gender, and just root for her to eventually meet the business end of a spear.
There are some okay character moments strewn about (the General’s noble fate, Quintus’s transformation from conscientious objector to killing machine) and a few plotlines that seem forced (an out-of-the-blue romance with an isolated farmgirl who looks like she works at a Revlon counter, the unsatisfying Final Bad Guy faceoff), but the meat of the film is the mayhem and Marshall delivers. The Roman massacre is a raw and gory and after that you’re looking at a straight-up chase movie that culminates in an exciting showdown in an abandoned fort.
Centurion runs out of fuel at the end, though, at that point, I’ve already had my fill of sublime Roman-on-Pict havoc, earning the enterprise an endorsement.
If this sounds attractive to you in the least, you must watch it on Blu-ray. It is made for high-definition. Though the film takes on a stylistic, washed-out “gritty” tone, the detailing is top-shelf. You will soak in all the gore gag these guys have cooked up for you (and there are some wet ones, friend) and when Marshall pulls back to set the action or track our heroes as they haul balls through the mountain-tops, the boosted resolution will transmit some breathtaking scenic landscapes. A killer audio mix awaits to punish your system, headed by an active, pounding 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
Extras: a well-done behind-the-scene featurette, deleted scenes with commentary, outtakes, cast and crew interviews, some nifty on-set footage, photo galleries, the HDNet “Look at Centurion) and feature commentary from Marshall and crew.
It won’t redefine filmmaking, but for some blood-stained period thrills, Centurion delivers.
Not Guilty. An under-the-radar slice of period bad-assery that should appeal to anyone who gets a kick out of Alpha males running through the woods and stabbing barbarians in the solar plexus.