Centurion (United Kingdom, 2010)August 25, 2010
There's a mild Conan the Barbarian flavor to Centurion - not necessarily in the way the plot moves, but in the general sense of grittiness as the heroes journey before a series of majestic backdrops while being pursued by an unstoppable evil. The film doesn't include many of the common staples of fantasy adventures - there are no magic or monsters - but the time period (117 A.D.) is friendly to the kinds of characters and motifs favored by the genre. It's "swords and sorcery" without the "sorcery" but with a double helping of "swords" to compensate.
Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), a centurion in the Roman army, is the last survivor of a barbarian attack on a far-flung Roman garrison in the Scottish Highlands. Escaping his imprisonment by the Picts, he struggles through inclement weather and hostile terrain to reach the Ninth Legion, to which he is attached for an assault on the barbarians. The Ninth is led by General Titus Virilus (Dominic West), who is part brawler and part skilled fighter and beloved by his men for both qualities. But the legion is betrayed by their scout, the mute Brigantian Etain (Olga Kurylenko), and led into a trap. There are a mere handful of survivors, including Quintus, who takes command. His goal: lead the small, ragtag group to safety - but first rescue the general: a task that exists somewhere between difficult and suicidal. The men escape the assault on the Pict camp, but they are pursued by Etain and a small group of hunters who have sworn a blood oath to kill the Romans or not return.
Despite the historical setting and writer/director Neil Marshall's use of a legend (the disappearance of the Ninth Legion) as the basis of the story, Centurion can be summed up in three words: running, maiming, and killing. It's hard to go for more than a minute or two without seeing one or more of those activities. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the viewer is aware that the goal of the film is to depict violence in an uncivilized world rather than to provide a history lesson. Centurion is less interested in exploring the difficulties of maintaining order around the edges of a sprawling empire than it is in providing a catalog of suitably brutal encounters. No one can claim the bloodshed was toned down in the quest for a PG-13 - and I consider that to be a positive quality.
Marshall, who helmed the underrated horror film, The Descent, has a flair for the visual. Some of the mountainscapes, captured by use of a helicopter, are nothing short of spectacular. In fact, the whole film looks great, with Marshall having effectively captured the feel of the era. (Even the credits show a degree of invention.) None of the women appear too neat or clean, and the men possess the rugged look one expects from soldiers sent to patrol the farthest arm of the Empire. When it comes to battle scenes, there's not too much fast cutting and things are spiced up with a liberal use of viscera. When characters are run through, there's no question what's happening to them. The viewer doesn't have to employ too much imagination.
The movie finds time for a quasi-love story, although its inclusion seems a little forced. Still, it works within its context by providing a plausible reason for the pace to briefly slow. One could argue there's a lesson here about tolerance and trust, but that might be looking too deeply into things. What it unquestionably illustrates, however, is the chemistry between Michael Fassbender and Imogen Poots (who plays an exiled Pict "witch") - these two will be reunited in a new adaptation of Jayne Eyre. In fact, Fassbender is a hot property these days. Not too long ago, he was appearing in small indie productions like Fish Tank. Soon, he'll be Magneto in the next X-Men movie, X-Men: First Class. He's a convincing hero, substituting decency and honor for the uncouth braggadocio of Dominic West, whose portrayal of General Virilus is scene-stealing. Also noteworthy is former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, whose voiceless interpretation of Vengeance Personified is intimidating. She's wilder here than she was when tagging along with Daniel Craig.
Centurion accomplishes with verve what it sets out to do; it's an accomplished adventure story set in an underused time and place. The climactic battle raises the adrenaline level a notch and, by being just about the right length and delivering the anticipated results, it is a satisfying way to wrap up the chase. During a summer in which movies have constantly undershot expectations, it's nice to find a low-key production that accomplishes the opposite.
Centurion (United Kingdom, 2010)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey, Olga Kurylenko, Imogen Poots
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Cinematography: Sam McCurdy
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures