With Centurion, writer/director Neil Marshall channels Mel Gibson to create a suspenseful and blood soaked chase picture, while Michael Fassbender convincingly delivers on his promise of future greatness.
In the history of bloodshed in cinema, Marshall has made a name for himself as one of the better recent entrants, due to his ability to create entertaining thrillers which do not rely, nor are overwhelmed by its bloody violence.
Centurion is pure Marshall in structure and character, and that is not a bad thing. Also obvious is the influence of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in its chase sequences and action beats, and while Gibbo’s Mayan’s on the run thriller is by far the superior film, there is much to like in Marshall’s take on the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, a Roman army who disappeared during their attempted occupation of Northern Ireland.
The Wire actor Dominic West plays their fearless commander General Titus Flavius Virilus, a brawling, drinking, grunting, shouting, and above all honourable solider of Rome, who would give Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas (of 300 fame) a run for his loincloth in the badass stakes.
Yet it is not West’s General who is the films main protagonist. That role belongs to Michael Fassbender’s Quintus Dias (cool name), an intelligent and multi-skilled centurion who joins the Ninth after his own legion is massacred by the native warriors known as The Picts.
In Fassbender, Marshall has cast an actor who is quickly developing into a bona-fide movie star, with a range and screen presence that upholds Centurion even during its patchy moments.
What is not patchy is a battle sequence, scratch that, slaughter of the Ninth Legion at the hands of the Picts, which brings the films story in motion as Virilus is taken prisoner, and Quintus leads a small group of survivors to rescue him.
On their trail is Etan (Olga Kurylenko), a mute, she-demon Pict warrior whose thirst for Roman blood is unparalleled, and is another strong addition in Marshall’s gallery of strong female characters.
Also working against Quintus and his crew is the rugged terrain, affectionately labelled “the asshole of the world” and splendidly shot on location in the Scottish Highlands.
With the chase on and the consequences fatal, Marshall delivers an entertaining thriller as only he knows how.
His handle on tension is expert, while his stock n’ trade of blood, guts, and even more blood sees the English filmmaker in fine form, if not a little exuberant from time to time, with a scene depicting famished Romans feasting on the warm guts of a just dead deer pushing the limits of gross out in cinema.
What is missing is an unfortunate lack of camaraderie amongst its characters, that freewheeling chemistry which made his werewolf pic Dog Soldiers a joy to not only watch, but listen to. Also missing the mark is an absorbent use of political analogy which only proves to be a distraction.
Fortunately for Marshall, he has enough plays in his book of tricks to get Centurion over the line, and a star in Michael Fassbender who delivers the goods, and then some. Expect great things.