Centurion (2010, Neil Marshall)
I love a good chase movie. More precisely, I like chases in films, period. Whether the characters are racing through the streets of large cities, through canyons, forests, whether they are engaged in the chase by car, plane, horseback or even on foot, all of these variables can result in a thrilling and satisfying sequence. I need only point film lovers to George Roy Hill’s western classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to support my feelings. When word got out that Englishmen Neil Marshall was working on a project set in the time of the Roman Empire, I think the curiosity of his fan base had been aroused. When I learned that much of the film would consist of a chase involving Roman soldiers and warriors of a ‘barbarian hoard!’ (I’m still working on a buzz from seeing Gladiator last week), I was absolutely on board with the upcoming movie. In the end, what audiences were served with was precisely what I had wished for, which, ironically, proved to be problematic in some ways.
It was while watching Centurion that something stupendously obvious struck me. My love for some of cinema’s quintessential chase sequences had as much to do with the quality and excitement of the pursuits themselves as it did with my attachment and interest with the characters involved. I don’t just like the 20 minute, cross country pursuit in Butch Cassidy because it looks cool (which it does), but because I am emotionally invested in the titular characters who are at risk of life in prison or worse if they are apprehended by the authorities and whoever the hell ‘that guy’ is. For all of Centurion’s grittiness and unabashed violence, both elements that I welcome with open arms on almost all occasions including this one, Marshall’s pawns in the field never grabbed me in the way that many characters in other films have. Succinctly put, Centurion is the fictional depiction of a Roman campaign of conquest which failed miserably in the northern region of what is now Britain. More precisely, the Romans are attempting to put an end to a ferocious resistance from the Picts (a reasonably primitive, if remarkably brave, society). But this mission quickly goes awry and soon enough Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) and the surviving members of the platoon are on the run…for their lives! From what I gather, the overall plot is based on some historical facts in that there was the mysterious disappearance of a Roman platoon in Britain at some point, but no one is certain of what exactly happened to them, so I hope nobody accepts Centurion as a history lesson.
Despite the reservations I have regarding this film, it nonetheless hit the mark in many respects. As I wrote earlier in this review, I enjoy a good bloodbath every now and then, and Marshall, with this film and his previous efforts, has proven that he is suited to give audiences some excellent, gory action sequences. The unforgiving nature of the Roman-Pict rivalry is shown in some unflinching manner, with brutality and a despicable lack of manners shown when the two sides cross paths. The movie’s central piece when the Picts send out a small but notoriously able search party (led by Olga Kurylenko) after the remaining Roman refugees also features some intense scenes of suspense. Some of the less fortunate Roman fugitives who are caught up with by the Picts are offered in some rather inglorious ways to say the least. The most interesting character during this stretch of the film happens to be the hunter played by Kurylenko, a mute hunter who wants to capture the fleeing Roman soldiers to avenge the death of her family. Unable to speak somehow makes her a more terrifying figure than I had foreseen and her uncanny ability to sniff out Quintus Dias and his men far miles away means that our protagonists mu constantly be on their guard, which does indeed mean that the movie’s stakes are sufficiently clear and pertinent. Marshall’s camera also offers some arresting cinematography, opening a window for the viewer that showcases a world both visually arresting and littered with its fair share of dangers. Marshall commits himself to this ballet of visual splendour and danger, with action scenes filmed and edited with a precise level of kinetic feel, precision and grace.
Of course, there is something not working right if the most interesting character also happens to be the one who can’t speak a word. Centurion’s weaknesses lie very much with its script, which director Marshall penned. It is one thing to have a great idea for a chase movie, and I think Centurion does have that great idea going for it, but if those in danger of being caught are not sufficiently interesting, then clearly something will be lacking. Thus is the most significant problem with this movie. The characters are not engaging, no matter how much pre-battle banter they may share. Quintus Dias, the Roman who takes the mantle in leading his countrymen to safety, is the biggest issue. Michael Fassbender is asked to narrate some of the character’s thoughts so the audience can better understand what he is thinking, but nothing especially thought-provoking or original is ever said. And lest some get confused, this isn’t an issue with the performance of the actor, Fassbender is fine here, but with what he was given to do based on the text. There is a lack of gravitas about the unfortunate band (or fortunate, depending on your point of view) who travel the frigid British countryside. There are a few instances when the group is awarded some downtime to gather their strength, during which time they share some thoughts naturally, but again, nothing really interesting is said. My interest in the chase had more to do with the unknown cruelty that awaited whomever was caught rather than my investment in the individuals being chased. In that sense, I was still rooting for their safe return home, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
Centurion also goes through various story loops that don’t ever mean very much by the film’s end. Not long ago I wrote a review about one of the director’s previous outings, The Descent, awarding it high praise despite the fact that perhaps the script shifted storylines often. With Centurion, this same issue does a disservice to the overall movie. The connection that links the Quintus Dias character to the following Roman campaign feels aimless, as does an attempt to rescue the army’s commander (played by Dominic West) after the latter is kidnapped by the Picts. Neither of these story elements amount to anything significant, nor does the eventual separation of our surviving band into two teams.
If anyone is determined to watch Neil Marshall’s Centurion, I would suggest that he or she proceed with a certain level of caution. There are a handful of moments and scenes which reminded me of how solid a filmmaker Marshall is at times and how creative he can be with his camera. He also has the ability to get the most out of his cast, regardless of whether or not his scripts are of the highest quality or not. However, in the end, Centurion feels inconsequential. Many of its details fled my mind as the days after seeing it went by. For 90 minutes, I was rewarded with just enough for it to be worth my time overall, but I’m not convinced I need to watch it again anytime soon.