In a climate of overblown epics that deliver more yawns and eye rolls than entertainment and excitement, Neil Marshall's "Centurion" is a welcome breath of fresh air. The fourth film from the British director, "Centurion" is a critical film for Marshall to get right, coming two years after the disappointing "Doomsday" which itself was one the heels of the modern horror classic "The Descent." Personally, I've found Marshall to be a more than competent director who struggles more with delivering a solid screenplay more than anything. "Centurion" is by no means perfect and technically still doesn't meet the bar set by "The Descent" but is still a ton of completely unapologetic fun.
Taking place in the second century, "Centurion" focuses on the Roman soldiers stationed on the border of their northern most empire in Britain. The last obstacle in their way of complete domination of the British Isles come in the form of a fierce, Celtic resistance consisting of the Picts (ancient Scots). Marshall wastes no time in setting the tone, taking a quiet night at a nameless Roman outpost and turning it into a nightmarish slaughter. "Centurion" is not a movie that pulls punches, in fact the first violent act in the film comes in the form of a Pict spear straight into the crotch of a Roman soldier relieving himself over a wall. It's a darkly comic first shot that lets viewers know two things: Marshall isn't holding back, but on the same hand, he's not trying to make anything more than a small action-adventure film.
We are initially introduced to who we believe to be the main character, in the form of a down-to-earth Roman General, Titus Virilus, played by Dominic West. West, a fantastic actor on "The Wire" has struggled with finding serious roles in feature films, as of late. His role in "300," a film that many might initially try to compare to this, was cringe worthy and unnecessary, while his over-the-top performance in "Punisher: War Zone" still wasn't a proper follow up to such a refined performance as McNulty. Here he casually trots through the material, never showing much effort in the performance. It would be ok, if the performance was consistently cool, but there are times where he amps up his energy to a fevered state that is quite jarring.
Fortunately, Michael Fassbender turns out to be the true lead in the film, as Quintus Dias, the titular centurion who managed to survive the opening massacre and eventually escape capture. With General Virilus soon captured in another ambush by the Pict's, it's up to Quintus to take up command and bring his fellow soldiers on a quest epic in scope, but smaller than expected in execution. Fassbender, also a "300" alum is now primarily known for his dramatic performance in "Hunger" and short appearance in "Inglorious Basterds," but here he walks the line between seasoned warrior and a man seeking peace without a wobble. His performance is very well suited towards Marshall's style of action that increases in intensity but shrinks in scale.
As the tables turn from a simple rescue to eventual flight from the Picts, Quintus, along with fellow comrades Brick (Liam Cunningham) and Bothos (David Morrisey) will find their will to survive tested along with their own feelings towards the Picts as a whole, especially when they cross paths with Arianne (Imogen Poots), a Pict outcast. The final act of the film is much more introspective than one would guess from what is primarily an adventure movie. Marshall's writing is much stronger in these latter scenes, which make character developments entirely believable. However, those wanting action will not be disappointed, as the final set piece is small, but incredibly brutal and ultimately satisfying. Marshall doesn't sugarcoat warfare and plays no favorites, treating the two female Pict warriors, Etain (Olga Kurylenko) and Aeron as rightful equals to their male foes. If political correctness is your bag, you won't like what happens in this final stand, but on the same page, "Centurion" wouldn't interest you to begin with.
On that same note, Marshall deserves tremendous credit for writing one of the most memorable female warriors to grace the silver screen in recent history. Only knowing Kurylenko from "Quantum of Solace," I'll admit I chuckled at the idea of her as a feared warrior in this film. Marshall crafts a very developed character, despite Etain being a mute. Her back-story is sparse, but well defined and her actions speak louder than any words. Kurylenko is a force to be reckoned with, and midway through the movie when she fights a much more powerful male foe, you have no doubt she will utterly decimate him. She's instantly earned a top spot in my book next to Sarah Conner, Ellen Ripley, and Yang (Michelle Yeoh, "Police Story 3") as a female action hero.
"Centurion" is not without it's faults, including the previously mentioned dismal performance from West. Marshall struggles a bit early on setting the pace of the movie, relying too much on plot twists that aren't that shocking. The wonderful cinematography, filmed entirely in Scotland, hides some of the slower early moments, but can only go so far to make up for weaker writing. The battle scenes get better as the action is more concentrated on a smaller number of characters. Earlier fights are technically impressive but rely a little too much on CGI blood, which sticks out like a sore thumb when followed by shots of fallen actors with practical makeup. "Centurion" doesn't seem to strive to be much more than an old-school action-adventure film and once it finds it's pace entering the second act, it's a satisfying, sometimes clichéd experience.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is generally strong, with a number of wide and medium shots lacking a level of detail consistent with close shots. Colors are well rendered with the beautiful natural environment contrasting with the cold, metallic armor of the Roman invaders. Edge enhancement is hard to spot and a light amount of grain is present, but never devolves into obtrusive digital noise.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital EX audio track is a lively affair. Surrounds get a good workout in battles deep in the forests of Scotland. Dialogue is clear and well balanced throughout the entire feature. Your subwoofer well get a bit of a workout, even in traveling montages, aided nicely by Ilan Eshkeri's workmanlike but unobtrusive score. Spanish subtitles are included.
The extras begin with a solid commentary from Neil Marshall and other crewmembers. A behind-the-scenes feature "Blood, Fire & Fury" is an entertaining look at the making of the movie that is far less promotional than similar featurettes. A collection of deleted scenes come with optional director commentary, while a role of outtakes and generic behind-the-scenes footage fills out the extra scenes category. The expected promotional featurette shows up in the form of the HDNet produced "A Look at Centurion." Last but not least are a collection of photo galleries and cast and crew interviews.
Despite a small handful of notable faults "Centurion" is a fun film, despite having a bloody mean streak running up it's back. Marshall proudly reclaims deserved acclaim, showing "The Descent" was no fluke. If you're in the market for small-scale action-adventure film that doesn't try and inject a load of political and historical hooey into the mix, "Centurion" is your ticket to success. Highly Recommended.