Probably the best way to make you understand the adrenalin-charged reaction I had to Neil Marshall’s Centurion, is by asking you to imagine me shouting, “I am a soldier of Rome! I will not yield!” in your face, then flailing my arm about making sword noises, followed by some guttural death sounds, before running round in a circle and collapsing on the floor exhausted.
If that sounds like the actions of a slightly deranged adult acting on a youthful whim, then it pretty much sums up Centurion, which I, for one, thought was really good. Just pity my poor girlfriend, who had to suffer the above quote being shouted at her in response to most questions that night. “Have you decided what you’d like to eat?” she asked. “I am a soldier of Rome! I will not yield!” I bellowed.
It’s so unashamed in its boy’s own-styled, straightforward, adventure roots, taking a simple premise and filling it with some great characters, exciting action and, more importantly, buckets of blood.
If you’re a fan of Marshall’s previous work (as well you should be), then you’ll know that some of his strongest assets as a writer/director are in creating likeable, albeit grim humoured characters, who find themselves confronted with incredibly brutal and violent situations.
Centurion is no exception and shares more than a few similarities with my favourite film of his to date, Dog Soldiers, and is all the better for it. Both films feature strong British casts, predominantly male, stuck out in beautiful and threatening surroundings, being hunted by a superior and feral foe and who are then forced to try and survive with a combination of wits and weapons, while their numbers dwindle.
Michael Fassbender, as Quintus, makes for an immediately sympathetic lead, whose voiceover and actions lead us through the mythic tale, supported along the way by some recognisable faces.
Fassbender is most likely best known of late for making a slight faux pas, in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (which I really can’t recommend highly enough if you’ve been putting off watching it. Just forget Death Proof ever happened) and proves to be as adept at sword play as he is at being a comparatively sensitive soul.
From previous experience, I wasn’t too sure what I’d make of Dominic West as fellow lead Virilus, having yet to see The Wire (despite multiple recommendations), leaving my last impression of him down to the trashy and mega-violent Punisher: War Zone, but he effortlessly stole every scene he was in. Consider me a convert. I wondered why Marshall would deprive me of a good Sean Pertwee fix in Centurion, but having witnessed an extremely buff West, came to realise that, were both to share the screen at the same time, there would be enough raw testosterone to impregnate a heterosexual man.
The large supporting cast are equally strong and far too numerous to mention in detail, but any concerns about Olga Kurylenko’s vocal performance are laid to rest when her character is revealed to have no tongue (following a brutal ordeal told in retrospect), leaving her beauty and fierce skill with a spear to do the work for her. It was also a pleasure to see Liam “Monkey see, monkey do” Cunningham, under Marshall’s direction again.
For me, though, Centurion proved to almost be a victim of its own success, with its amazing first act proving near impossible to better what followed, especially when the film takes its inevitable path in the second half.
With its skilful setting up of so many characters, I actually became agitated when the conflict between the Romans and Picts (the barbaric, yet not unsympathetic tribe standing up against Roman invasion) took its toll on the cast list, making the film suffer from what I’ll refer to, on a personal note, as Iliad syndrome, which is hardly a criticism, when most films can’t even be bothered to make one of their characters worth supporting. It does, however, make for elevated emotions when watching the fight scenes and it was all I could do not to shout, “Get ‘em! Feck ‘em up!” at certain points, which would have revealed me to be the true professional I am.
It’s not my fault, though, as the on-screen violence in Centurion really is brutally beautiful. Limbs are severed, heads decapitated, eyeballs gouged, hearts stabbed, throats cut and faces smashed, all in the most visceral way possible, making for a massively exciting spectacle, though how it passes for a 15 certificate movie is anyone’s guess.
I’ve confessed in previous reviews as to the difficulty in expressing the joy I get from violent cinematic action, without sounding utterly psychotic and Centurion really doesn’t help my cause. It’s no wonder I was eating rare steak and drinking Stella within 24 hours of watching it.
Of special note was one poor souls’ timely encounter with a tree, which made me all too aware of why the Biker Scouts in Return of the Jedi wear helmets.
The lack of CGI only helps matters along, with every effect, shot and action feeling gritty and challenging, especially when combined with the naturally stunning backdrop of Scotland. Between Simon Bowles (no relation, sadly) and Sam McCurdy serving as Production Designer and Director of Photography, respectively, the whole film looks and feels much more epic than most films of a much larger budget.
At times, as the score swells and the cameras flies over picturesque mountains, there is a slight feel of the same breathtaking shots that populated The Lord Of The Rings films, an impressive feat and one to be commended.
Actually, looking at my notes, it appears I scribbled down the line “We travel light” during Centurion, which might hint at the intentional influence of Rings. That said, I also thought Virilus was quoting from Van Damme’s A.W.O.L. early in the film, so who knows.
For those Den Of Geek readers who also left comments on the trailer we posted, expressing concern over having to root for the invading Romans, while our sympathies are directed towards a handful of Roman soldiers, the Romans as a whole are not painted out to be heroes. Try not to judge the film as being pro-Rome from a historical stance and remember that, technically, Viggo Mortensen was a Nazi in the superb Good, but strong characters aren’t always ruled by their label in time.
Of more concern than any issue raised in the film is the slight dread that, as Neil Marshall and his team get bigger and better, a Hollywood sized hole will swallow them up and deny us more of their inventive and exciting films, especially as budget also tends to dictate length and Centurion (at 97 minutes), as with his other films, demands attention from start to finish.
Centurion is in UK cinemas from April 23rd.