Neil Marshall burst onto the scene in 2002 with Dog Soldiers – a horror comedy built around a simple but brilliant premise: British Squaddies vs Werewolves. He followed that up with 2005’s The Descent, a straight-up horror, no comedy allowed, as a group of pot-holers got into trouble deep underground. Two very different but equally well made and received horror movies left audiences in anticipation of what Marshall would do next. What he delivered, in 2008, was Doomsday. Even its defenders, of whom I would count myself one, admit that it’s a mess. Rarely does a film leap genres as often as Doomsday, lurching from Dawn of the Dead to Escape from L.A. to Gladiator to Mad Max without stopping for breath. It’s wildly overambitious, attempting a Scottish based “Apocalypse Now” style journey into madness while only ever achieving the madness part. Obviously the Scottish landscape hasn’t scared Marshall off as it’s the setting for his new film – although where Doomsday’s Scotland was a futuristic wasteland, Centurion is Roman one.
Centurion opens with Michael Fassbender’s Roman legionnaire staggering across a snowy mountain range. He flashes back to life at his garrison as it is attacked one night by Picts – native Scottish folk, who, given their dress sense seem to have watched Braveheart once too often. The Picts massacre everyone in the roman fortress, carrying Fassbender back with them as a prisoner. After a brief interrogation, Fassbender is locked away and promptly escapes across the aforementioned snowy mountains, making the opening one of the most pointless flash forwards I think I ever seen. Many films start with an opening scene from later in the film – think of good examples like Inception, or even mediocre ones like Swordfish. But never have I seen a film with a flash forward to all of 15 minutes.
Back in England, the Romans send their “best unit” – the 9th Legion up to Scotland to teach these locals a lesson. They are to be led into deepest darkest Scotland by a Pict guide, who supposedly has sided with the Romans. Now, do you think she will happily work with her roman masters against her own race? Or might she lead them into a trap and betray them? Hmm, tough one, I know. Well, however it happens…. the legion is ambushed by a Pict army in what is an excellent battle sequence. Clearly drawing from the opening of Gladiator, it’s shot with the same washed out colour scheme, the only splashes of colour saved for the fireballs and the blood. Marshall loves his gore (the first death shown in the movie is by pike between the legs) and every fight thereafter contains plenty of limbs hacked off and faces caved in. Entire minutes pass with no sound save for “crunch, squish, urgh”. The ambush provides the centrepiece of the film and it’s well staged and presented. Unfortunately, its also the clear high point of the movie, with at least half of its running time remaining.
7 soldiers survive the ambush, including the previously mentioned Fassbender, who joined the legion earlier on. And so begins an extended chase as the survivors rush to get south of the border with the Picts in hot pursuit. Remember the opening 10 minutes of the Two Towers – two groups running across barren, spectacular terrain, captured in breathtaking helicopter shots? Stretch that out over 50+ minutes and you have the second half of this movie. Sure there’s some beautiful scenery to look at, but not much else to stir the blood. There are only a couple of actual action sequences during the chase and there’s nothing all that interesting about any of them. In some ways, it reminded me of the middle third of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with the super-posse always chasing the two leads, but not much happening apart from Butch asking “who are those guys?” To hammer home the reference, Centurion even has a jump from a high cliff into water, although nowhere near as dramatic or fun as the aforementioned cowboy classic.
One of Marshall’s great strengths as a film maker is his group dialogue – think of the squaddies swapping stories and banter in Dog Soldiers or the women bickering in The Descent. Here, it’s best demonstrated by the two veteran legionnaires, played wonderfully by David Morrissey and Liam Cunningham. Both are gruff ‘seen it all before’ warriors who know they are past their best, but continually provide support to the main hero. Michael Fassbender, the lead, has received a lot of plaudits following his turn in Inglourious Basterds, but there’s nothing to stretch him here. His role as Quintus Dias is a standard stoic hero, fairly one-note throughout.
Dominic West is suitably gruff as the Roman general who’s happier with his men than enjoying the privileges his title provides – a common stereotype in military movies. He’s handy in the action, but not given a great deal to do beyond that. The real stand out is the Pict warrior Etain, played by Olga Kurylenko. A vision of vengeance, she had her tongue cut out by Romans and hence is totally mute. Despite, or more likely because of this character trait, Etain is a really showy part, requiring lots of exaggerated gestures and close-ups of the eyes. Olga nails this perfectly with hatred flashing across her face, and is a true force of nature throughout the film: It’s really only her presence that keeps the second half from totally grinding to a halt.
From such a promising talent as Marshall, Centurion really is a disappointment. Plenty of the trademark violence, cinematic homages and a few choice moments of dialogue lift the film above standard action fair, but I’ve come to expect so much more from this writer/director. Perhaps the reaction to Doomsday has convinced him to tone down some of the more fantastical or bizarre elements originally planned. Or perhaps Marshall always wanted to tell such a straight forward “historical” tale. A shame if so, as the presence of a few werewolves or a crawler or two would sure have livened up this relatively dour chase movie.