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Non-Review Review: Centurion

I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed with Neil Marshall. I’ll concede that I genuinely enjoyed Dog Soldiers and The Descent, while acknowledging their flaws. His movies have a tendency to start in the absurd and just keep amping things up until they get unbelievably ridiculous. Even the over-the-top and quite-crap-actually Doomsday still had a lot of energy to carry it through as it gleefully veered through camp straight out into uncharted realms of gratuitous nonsense. On the other hand, Marshall’s latest, Centurion, seems relatively tame. It’s fairly mediocre throughout, which perhaps seems less entertaining because it never has the energy to go too far. And that’s a bit of shame.

The last Fassbender?

The movie deals with the same events roughly covered by The Eagle – the “mysterious” disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion in 108/9 A.D., following the popular theory that the legion got itself into a bit of bother trying to tackle the Picts up in Scotland. Of course, the explanation favoured among historians today suggests that perhaps the fighting force was just disbanded and reassigned, but that wouldn’t make for an exciting little Neil Marshall film, would it?

It’s interesting how the theme of Scottish nationalism expresses itself in Marshall’s work, both here and Doomsday. Indeed, Marshall’s earlier post-apocalyptic action fest feature a latter-day Hadrian’s Wall built to keep the Scottish out of England, leaving them to die of some random plague. They didn’t die, and instead reverted to lawlessness, resenting any attempt by their Southern neighbours to reassert their rule. In fact, that earlier movie opened when the English (now facing an infection all of their own) had to send a team up North to investigate why the Scots had proved too damn aggressive to allow themselves be destroyed by a mere apocalyptic disease.

Learn to Pict your battles...

This time around, the portrayal of the barbarians to the North is even more sympathetic. Like in Doomsday, the Scottish are portrayed as loud and aggressive, but here the movie hints that there are justifications. Using a rather obvious Iraqi war metaphor, we’re informed that the Picts are “using guerilla tactics and the landscape to their advantage”, being led by a man who was “a farmer until his wife was killed.” As the eponymous Centurion informs us, “This is a new kind of war. A war without honour. A war without end.” Indeed, when the reason for the Pict’s hatred of the Ninth Legion is revealed, we discover that a member of the war party is guilty of what today would be considered a war crime.

What we get is a functional little action movie, built around a bunch of Romans who end up leading a mission into Scotland that seems doomed to end in failure. Surrounded by the enemy on all fronts, our heroes find themselves fighting not only for their Empire, but for their very lives. What follows is a fairly functional “group under siege” movie, populated with unsurprising little twists and turns. In particular, there are several betrayals which make the Roman Empire look like a bunch of fools. Granted, one could argue that “group under siege” movies didn’t exist too much at the time of the Roman Empire, so they probably couldn’t spot the signs, but it’s all still very obvious.

Roamin' Romans Roamin'... Keep them Romans Roamin'...

Still, there’s thrills and spills and a relatively large amount of violence and gore, as one might expect from Neil Marshall. While the threshold is certainly higher than one might expect in your traditional historical action picture, it never reaches the levels of absurdity one expects from Marshall. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as it prevents the movie from ever becoming incredibly ridiculous (even as we watch Romans who look like they learnt combat from medieval movies rather than the Roman Empire’s military academy) – but it also makes everything seem oddly functional. As a result, the movie never has the chance to come off the rails, but it also doesn’t distinguish itself from its competition.

The cast is actually pretty awesome. Michael Fassbender is solid, even if he adheres to the rule which states that actors in Roman movies must have silly haircuts. He wrestles with some of the movie’s rather purple prose, which sound like we should get a shot or two of his character making notes in a diary between combat scenes. “Now she hunts Romans,” he remarks of a foe, before adding the redundant (but no less dramatic), “Now we are the prey.” When Fassbender’s character converses with the Picts, I was able to pick up some Gaelic in his dialogue, which perhaps explains why the Irish actor’s accent seems to slip a bit in those scenes, but he’s mostly really good. Also, I tend not to mind what accents Romans speak in since… well, they’d be speaking Latin. On the other hand, while Imogen Poots continues to have the most beautiful eyes I think I have ever seen on film, her Scottish accent is just a little dodgy.

Courage under fire...

That said, despite my fondness for Deadwood, I’m not sure the movie handles the whole “classical soldiers swearing like modern sailors” things that most modern and hardcore historical action movies seem to demand. It’s a good thing that the movie has Dominic West on hand to deliver lines like “when will people learn not to $%^& with the ninth?”, because other wise it would seem silly. On the other hand, even Fassbender can’t make “hopeless is the stuff of legend – and legend will get you laid” sound like it belongs.

So, Centurion is functional and efficient. It’s probably a bit tighter than most of Marshall’s other efforts, but I think it suffers from being too hemmed in. There’s a sense that things are being held back, or restrained, which isn’t a bad thing – because, to be honest, a balls-to-the-wall Neil Marshall Roman film really could go either way. But it certainly wouldn’t be just okay.

Quit horsin' around...

This is just okay.

2 Responses

  1. I had forgotten about this film entirely. It had infused with “The Eagle” in my mind and might have been lost to time if you hadn’t written this review.

    Maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, however. Now I’m tempted to give it a go.

    • It’s grand. Nothing special. In fact, disappointingly average, because Marshall so often swings for the fences.

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