I was let down by The Expendables, and not just because I wanted Scott Pilgrim to succeed at the box office. Despite promising a hard-hitting 1980's action throwback picture, Stallone meekly offered the same crap that every modern action film coughs up: quick cuts, shaky-cam, and terrible CG (in this case, all of the splatter, used to elevate the shot-as-a-PG-13 film to the R rating Stallone's audience wanted all along). Now, just two weeks later, Neil Marshall's Centurion arrives in theaters (and on VOD) offering everything Sly's film doesn't: fast-paced yet completely discernable action packing a brutal punch, with a pleasing mixture of solid (if noticeable) CG and practical effects to pull off the bloody, bloody battles. The fact that Marshall is also hawking an interesting take on medieval epics and a better clothesline story to hang it all on is just icing on the cake.
A 20-year war is coming to a head. The Roman army has been stopped dead in their tracks from conquering Northern Britain by a band of savages known as the Picts. Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) is tired of fighting, and wishes to mount a full-force attack on the Picts and wipe them out once and for all. To complete this task, he chooses General Titus Virilus (Dominic West), and assigns him Pict traitor Etain (Olga Kurylenko) as a guide. In the woods, on the way to the battleground, Virilus encounters two things: Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who has just escaped from the Picts' grasp, and a total ambush only a few steps behind. Once the dust has settled, only a tiny band of men remain, and Dias leads the charge, with the goal of rescuing Virilus and getting the group back to the nearest Roman base camp.
One of the most boring things about sword and sandal movies is the way we get to know about the characters and then the whole film ends in a giant battle, where most directors' attempts to remain focused on our heroes amongst the building, epic chaos is basically in vain. Marshall constructs Centurion backwards, opening with not one but two bloody, action-packed battles between Roman troops and Pict warriors, letting the audience sate their bloodlust early on, and building up Dias and his small party afterwards. The climactic final battle only takes place between a few key characters, but it's just as (if not more) exciting than seeing some giant, drawn-out beach scene where the audience's focus is hazy and it all becomes a mush of supposedly-exciting stuff happening (ahem).
I was one of the few to find some enjoyment in Marshall's last project, Doomsday, but this is a much better effort, presenting a director totally at ease with the material. When I say Centurion is "bloody", that might be an understatement. Limbs fly, eyes are gouged, chests are cut, and more, all with a light, almost effortless sense of motion. Fassbender fits right in, too, thoroughly blotting out any bad memories of his brief appearance in this summer's Jonah Hex. He's perfect for this kind of movie; just like in Basterds he exhibits the winning ability to flow between "B-action" and "Oscar reel" and make it look easy. Filling out his group, Marshall fills the rest of his stable with strong pinch-hitters like Liam Cunningham and David Morrissey, while star players West and Kurylenko make what impressions they can while still respectively played a kidnapped general who only appears occasionally and a mute tracker.
Does Centurion have anything to offer that viewers probably haven't seen before? Although I missed out on Gladiator, I'm still inclined to say "no". Does Centurion have much going on beneath the surface? Again, no; Marshall doesn't bring any "themes" or "psychoanalysis" to this blood-spattered table. Nonetheless, it's a fast and furious 97 minutes that delivers the goods with skill and panache at pretty much every opportunity the viewer could ask for. In a summer somewhat light on pure-enjoyment popcorn movies, Centurion is a refreshing blast of blood and sweat that practically demands you hit the theater and buy their biggest bucket of it. If you can still stomach it, that is.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.