Violent historical epics are a somewhat rare commodity, but scarcer are the ones that are actually worth watching. Neil Marshall – who is revered by horror fans for The Descent and loved by almost no one for the action/sci-fi/exploitation monstrosity Doomsday – follows up his genre studio mish-mash by taking a stab at the all-but-forgotten subgenre with Centurion, which comes complete with rolling fireballs and grandiose melee weapon skirmishes. Unfortunately, the film never elevates beyond being average for a variety of reasons, leaving viewers with something merely on the level with Dog Soldiers in terms of entertainment.
Centurion tells the story of Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), the survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman fort, who teams up with the General Virilus’ (Dominic West) Ninth Legion of Rome to wipe out the Picts and their leader, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen). After the band of men fall into a trap behind enemy lines and Virilus is captured, Dias assumes command of the Legion and races back to the Roman frontier, evading a vicious band of Pict troops led by the vengeful Etain (Olga Kurylenko).
The most interesting aspect of the film, and coincidentally its greatest fault, is that it tells the story from the Roman point-of-view, with the Picts being presented as the antagonists. Historically speaking, Romans are the ones viewed as barbaric and villainous during the 2nd century. It’s a somewhat unique way to explore this chapter in history, considering that horror is the only genre that has successfully had audiences root for the villain on a fairly consistent basis. Regardless, even with full knowledge of the historical context behind the film, the angle would have worked had it not been for the numerous discussions about how the Romans raped and pillaged everything in their path – more specifically, what they did to Etain and her village. It leaves viewers with no one to root for and, in turn, you end up not really caring what happens to anyone because, essentially, they’re all bad guys.
Aside from The Descent, writing has never been Marshall’s strongest suit (that distinction would fall on building tension and action) and Centurion is no exception. The most puzzling part of the script is the introduction of exiled witch Arian (Imogen Poots), is supposed to be a love interest for Dias but there’s no basis for their non-existent relationship, nor is there any chemistry between them. Their few scenes together basically serve as a bridge between the second act and the climax and the only reason for her inclusion in the story is to have somewhere for him to go before the credits roll – which does make sense taking the film’s resolve into account.
Since there is very little character development in the film, the action takes the forefront which is both a blessing and a curse. The action is expertly choreographed and looks beautiful thanks to DP Sam McCurdy, whose style has perfectly bonded with Marshall’s since their work on Dog Soldiers. It is, without a doubt, the film’s strongest attribute. However, aside from a scene early on with the aforementioned fireballs, there is really no variation in the action; in fact, most of the action scenes might as well be considered looped footage, since they mirror each other so closely. Beautiful looking looped footage, but repetitive none the less. Seeing a head loped off loses its luster after it’s been done thirty times in ninety minutes.
Centurion, in a way, proves that Marshall learned from the big mistakes of Doomsday; it’s focused, it makes sense, and while other films might have covered the same ground in the past, it certainly doesn’t rip scenes from them tit-for-tat. Beautiful looking and action packed, Centurion is certainly what the doctor ordered if you’re just looking for a superficial experience. But without character development or a strong stand-out performance, it’s destined for nothing more than lazy Saturday afternoon reruns on USA.