On paper Centurion sounds pant-wettingly awesome. 117AD, the Roman Empire is at its height stretching from the scorching deserts of North Africa to the wintry wilds of Celtic Britain. Soldier Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) has just made his escape from the clutches of a Pict raiding party. Fleeing through hostile territory, all would seem lost for Dias when his mounted chasers finally catch up with him. Luckily the charismatic General Virilus (Dominic West) has been given orders to march his battle-hardened 9th legion through Northern Britain in order to eradicate the Pictish menace once and for all.
Dias is saved by the General’s men in the nick of time and proceeds to join their campaign. A highly skilled and lethal female tracker, Etain (Olga Kurlyenko), has been assigned to Virilus in his the hunt for the Pict King Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen). She betrays the Roman mission. The legion is slaughtered in an ambush, Virilus captured and Dias left to lead a small band of survivors who must rescue their commander and make it back ''civilisation'' in one piece.
With Brit-horror maestro Neill Marshall at the helm and bolstered by a solid cast you’d be mad to think a project of this calibre wouldn’t deliver on quality white-knuckle “men on a mission” thrills, right? Unfortunately in its execution Centurion leaves much to be desired.
Firstly the survivor’s nemesis Etain is a real damp squib of a villain, the beautiful Kurylenko more adept at sultry pouting than exuding menace as a relentless hate-filled huntress. Ironically it's Marshall’s impartiality, his humanisation of the Picts and refusal to paint them using “savage” stereotypes that negates their terror factor. Sure they’re angry, blue woad adorned and don’t hesitate at cutting our protagonists to shreds but they simply fail to inspire any real dread. In fact come the final confrontation between Etain’s hunting party and her Roman prey, the Picts are dispatched with such ease by Dias’s severely depleted unit one wonders why they didn’t just attack their pursuers in a stand up fight from the outset.
Chase movie conventions are present in abundance right down to the obligatory waterfall jump yet overall the film plays like more of a dull cross-country hike with a high fatality rate than a nerve-shredding marathon. This is in no small part due to a pace-killing romantic subplot which jarringly pulls you from the tension-zone, the hunted legionaries finding respite in an idyllic clearing that’s home to ravishing medicine-woman Arianne (Imogen Poots). Hopping from frying pan to bucolic haven before diving back into the frying pan again for a final dust up with the baddies just doesn’t gel, the final act suffering as a result.
As regards subtext if you look hard enough you might find some commentary on the nature of imperialism, in essence “you reap what you sow”. Occupy a country, brutalise and murder its people and you’ll unwittingly create a wellspring of resistance through your military hauteur and cultural chauvinism. So we have Roman brutes hiding behind a thin veneer of civilisation and Pictish society not impartial to a bit of internecine nastiness, Gorlacon having banished and scarred Arianne for her herb dabbling. Who then are the real barbarians? Any serious contemplation of such themes is rendered superfluous as soon as Marshall’s camera begins revelling in the thrusting of arrow tips into eyeballs.
Now don’t get me wrong, I adore hewn limbs and entrails as much as the next slavering gorehound but what worked for the schlocky “Doomsday” and creature-feature “Dog Soldiers” doesn’t necessarily translate well to the field of historically-inspired human conflict. The bloodshed appears gaudy and pythonesque rather than harrowingly realistic. Once you become benumbed to cascading claret following the umpteenth onscreen impalement, realisation dawns that two largely unsympathetic factions having at each other for two hours doesn’t promote viewer engagement. Just who are we supposed to care about? It’s this failure to generate empathy towards our Roman survivalists that hamstrings the entire picture. Dias’ transition from a man wholly signed up to the imperial project to one willing to repudiate it feels rushed and is tacked on in the last five minutes of screen time.
Aesthetically Centurion is a mixed bag. While it does feature some nice cinematography its rain-sodden murky brown palette becomes quite wearing after a while, yes it's winter in an inhospitable environment but by god it’s just plain dull to look at. The film self-consciously strives to assert its “epic” status at every opportunity from Dias’ unnecessary narration to aerial shots overused to such an extent that their “wow” factor is nullified. At certain points, most notably the set-piece ambush of the 9th Legion, you’ll marvel at what has been achieved with modest funding but then will come a scene featuring the likes of a woeful CGI wolf attack.
Performances are decent across the board, West’s rambunctious Virilus being the most fun though his presence is merely an extended cameo. Fassbender holds the show together with aplomb; believable in his role. Kurylenko’s Etain is mute, her tongue having been cut out by the lovely Romans, so we’re relying on a physicality that just doesn’t generate any fear. Poots plays the romantic interest nicely, Arianne a mixture of fiery independence and vulnerability. The always reliable Liam Cunningham however isn’t given much to work with and looks like he’s walked directly from the set of this year’s Clash of the Titans, sans eyeliner, in an identical grizzled old veteran role.
Neill Marshall is rightfully the darling of genre fans everywhere, a magician who achieves miracles with limited funds and never fails to turn in a watchable fare. After his instant cult classic debut and the masterful Descent, parity has been achieved between two outstanding pictures and two mediocre ones. Most things have been done to death a thousand times over. The Marshall method involves raiding the sacred halls of convention, transposing tried and tested genre formulae onto fresh settings. For the most part it works and works damn well. In the case of this sword and sandal chase movie hybrid, the magic just isn’t there I'm afraid.