I’ll outright say and admit that one of my favorite filmmakers has to be British-filmmaker Neil Marshall who burst into the scene almost a decade ago with his genre mash-up werewolf film, Dog Soldiers. Since then he has come out with a film every couple years which follows what’s becoming a trademark style of his.He would take a well-worn and used genre and mash it together with a few others to create a film that’s wholly his own. He did this with his follow-up films in The Descent and Doomsday. Now it’s 2010 and we have his latest film and it follows his usual style. Centurion is an adventure, chase and men on a mission film that doesn’t reinvent the genres it’s smashing together but instead embraces their traditions and creates a rip-roaring yarn which moves at a frenetic pace with characters who grow and expose their motivations as the film progresses to it’s bittersweet finale.
Neil Marshall will always be known to fanboys and the action crowd even if the elites of the film industry continues to dismiss the man as nothing more than competent filmmaker. In Centurion he shows that he could work within a traditional sword and sandal story and still show his signature style. We have it’s main character of Roman centurion Quintus Dias (played with a subdued and introspective seriousness by Michael Fassbender) who gets captured by the Picts of Britain during Rome’s occupation of the island. Unlike most Romans captured by the guerilla-warfare conducting Picts, Quintus has learned to speak Pict thus has become a valuable capture. But his loyalty to his Empire and its people dashes the hopes of the Picts ever learning anything from Quintus and decides to play some sport with him as the hunted prey.
It’s during the hunt for Quintus by a band of Pict warriors that he stumbles upon the Roman Ninth Legion led by General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West). Once freed from his captors and hunters, Quintus is more than happy to rejoin his fellow Roman centurions in their hunt to once and for all destroy Pict leader Gorlacon (Urlich Thomsen) and his Pict army. To aid them in their search for this enemy army is the mute Brigantes scout, Etain (played with silent fury by Olga Kurylenko), who knows the lands where the Picts hide and do their hit-and-run raids.
It’s once the whole Ninth Legion has been led into the thick forests by Etain that the trap was sprung with Etain herself the catalyst for what amounts to as the massacre of the Legion. It’s this event which Marshall in his own way tries to explain one of history’s mysteries: The mysterious fate of the Roman Ninth Legion. Historians have never agreed as to why the Legion disappeared from Roman and historical records and Marshall’s film is one theory.
The rest of the film has the handful of the Legion who has survived trying, at first, to free their general from Pict captivity and when that mission fails with deadly results the remaining men who has chosen to follow Quintus try to make a run back to Roman lines. On their heels like a she-wolf leading a pack of wolves is Etain whose thirst for vengeance for what the Romans did to her (raped her as a young child and cut out her tongue in addition to wiping out her family and tribe) pushes her to get these Romans with near-supernatural drive. It’s rare to find a film where the main villain is a woman, but one whose abilities surpasses that of the men she’s hunting and whose motivations make her more than a tad sympathetic to her cause.
Centurion does action well with sequences involving a jump off of a steep cliff and into the river below to last stand inside an abandoned Roman fort. Marshall knows how to stage and shoot these scenes so we never lose sight of where the participants are. Most filmmakers nowadays try to hide their inability to choreography action sequences by using quick cut editing, hand-held camera jittery viewpoints and, at times, just shooting it from a distance. Neil Marshall doesn’t do anyone of these gimmicks and tricks which just shows that while his hybrid style in terms of storytelling might be new and refreshing he still embraces the traditional ways if it serves his films properly.
The acting in this film was quite good from not just its leads in Fassbender and Kurylenko but from everyone. This film’s ensemble cast includes veteran British actors just as Liam Cunningham, Paul Freeman and David Morrissey. Other supporting players such as Imogen Poots, Urlich Thomsen and Dominic West do a great job in the limited roles they’re given. The fact that Kurylenko utters not one word in her scenes yet commands each and everyone she’s in shows just how well Marshall can direct not just action pieces but how to direct his actors in doing their jobs.
This film doesn’t do anything to reinvent the action genre that is it’s foundation, but what it does is show that action films sometimes could be just as good when it’s filmmaker leans on practices from traditions past. Outside of the CGI-blood used to show the brutality of the fights and deaths this film is quite lacking in the CG department. Shot on location in the highlands of Scotland and studios near and around London, Centurion is quite a throwback to the sword and sandal films which dominated the film industry during the late 50’s and most of the 60’s. Marshall’s latest will not win any mainstream awards, but the genre crowd will definitely embrace it as something that will entertain and thus welcome it with cult status.