Centurion (2010)

Centurion is Brit-director Neil Marshall’s fourth film and, like the once brilliant M. Night Shyamalan, his recent works have failed to impress as much as his first two films. Centurion is a decent film, which fails on a number of levels, but luckily the tightly-written dialogue, some ace cinematography and the excellent acting throughout saves it from being an aggravating, confused mess. Although solid entertainment, Centurion smacks of lost potential.

It’s 117 A.D. and Roman soldier Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is having a bad week. Having been attacked and tortured by the native Picts in the North of England, he escapes and finds himself teamed up with a mute Pict assassin Etain (Olga Kurylenko) and the entirety of the Ninth Legion. They head back into Pict country to destroy the Pict leader Gorlacon. Those familiar with the mysterious fate of the Ninth Legion will know this doesn’t go particularly well, and Dias soon finds himself battling for survival in a harsh, alien territory, all the while being hunted by the Pict’s most deadly assassin.

If this sounds fun, then you’re right. Centurion is very watchable, especially if you like your historical action flicks, and especially if you don’t mind a bit of blood. Centurion is brutal. Skin slicing, child killing, head chopping, eye stabbing – it’s got it all. This is no surprise coming from Neil Marshall, and it’s baffling how it was only released as a fifteen certificate in the UK.

The acting is fantastic throughout, with some brilliant performances from an ensemble cast of British actors. There are elements of the soldiery camaraderie that made Dog Soldiers so watchable and, despite the surprising lack of Marshall veteran Sean Pertwee, the ranks of the Ninth are bolstered by the recognizable likes of Dominic West, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed. Cunningham and Morrissey especially shine as Brick and Bothos, adding slightly more sympathetic characters to the otherwise hard-to-like Roman soldiers.

This, however, is one of the major problems with Centurion. The characters. Not the dialogue, not the acting, not even the actual characterization, but what they represent. It’s very hard to feel any sympathy for any of them. The Romans are the unlawful invaders, the rapists, the pillagers, the sadistic bastards who killed farmers and families, whereas the Picts are the former farmers, who are now barbaric, vicious killing machines who fight dishonorably and take pleasure in lopping off a man’s head. Really slowly. Perhaps this is Marshall’s message – another war-on-terror parallel that teaches us violence always begets violence, and in the end war can only bring a perpetual hell-ride of misery and pain. And confusion.

The plotting is very undisciplined, something that seriously flawed Marshall’s previous work Doomsday. Whereas his first two films Dog Soldiers and the Descent had very solid, rigidly formatted plots that worked perfectly, Doomsday and Centurion lack flow and direction. Even after Quintus Dias is attacked and captured and escapes and returns with the Ninth, he then escapes a massacre and goes on a rescue mission… and there’s still more after that! It’s winding and uncertain, and Marshall even throws in a love interest three-quarters of the way through, which is as unnecessary as it is baffling.

Many of the surprises are distinctly unsurprising, bludgeoning the screen with clichés, and a lot of the plotting is convenient, leaving you feeling like Marshall had too much of a free reign on this project. Not as much as Doomsday, presumably, as Centurion certainly isn’t as completely scattershot as that, but it certainly lacks discipline. Some of the direction is also too frenetic to fully understand what is actually happening, and the battle of the Ninth Legion is shockingly short. Although this could never be as epic as Gladiator due to budgetary constraints, there are moments in which the build up never really reaches it’s potential.

Centurion is unmet potential. It is brutal, well acted and watchable. It is also confused, more than a little winding and surprisingly cliché-ticking. Enjoyable if you like Romans and buckets of blood, sadly passable for anyone else.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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