From the Netflix promo photos, this looked like I was about to embark on another cheesy, violent, post-apocalyptic Mad Max rip-off. Instead, what I got was Neil Marshall’s earnest ultra-violent Picts versus Romans historical action thriller. That sounds worth a look, doesn’t it?
In a rare bit of truth in advertising, Centurion, not to be confused with Spartan or Trojan War, a slushy Jennifer Love Hewitt romp, is actually about an honest to goodness Roman Centurion in AD 117 played by the manful and often shirtless Michael Fassbender. It features other “about to become famous” British actors Dominic West (from the Wire,) Riz Ahmed (critically acclaimed for HBO’s The Night Of,) Bond Girl Olga Kuryenko, and the luminous Imogen Poots, who bravely refuses to change her last name.
The plot is a fictional and gory retelling of the legendary lost Spanish 9th Legion in the wilds of Pictland somewhere in Scotland. This was but one of many failed attempts by the Romans to subjugate Scotland. Finally they said screw it, let’s build Hadrian’s Wall and just try to keep the Scots from coming over into England.
This hits several of my favorite genres: sword-swinging action movie, historical epic, and manly movies where scarred, bearded men shout at each other. There’s scarred ass-kicking women in this one, so that’s an extra bonus. The acting is uniformly good. The production values are terrific, including period accurate armor and weapons and sweeping Scottish vistas and forests. Why was this such a dismal box office failure to where I’d never even heard of it, and had it confused with Doomsday, Neil Marshall’s previous film? Eh, I’d suggest it’s probably the plot.
Critics tend to dismiss historical action epics anyways, calling them silly and making fun of the real historical names. I remember the goof from Siskel and Ebert that’s not Siskel or Ebert mocking the names Maximus and Commodus from Gladiator. Gladiator went on to win Best Picture but it was ridiculed at the time of release, and many critics still do their best to tarnish its reputation as one of the finest examples of this genre.
Oh, right, the plot. Fassbender plays Quintus Dias, a Roman ex-gladiator who is captured and escapes from the Picts, tribal Scots who wear lots of leather and shoot arrows a lot in these kinds of movies. Dominic West is General Titus Virilus, whose Legion rescues Fassbender and is tasked with subjugating all of the Scottish wild people. This does not go well for anyone in the cast with “us” at the end of his name.
I guess to illustrate the futility of a guerrilla war, the plot starts chasing its own tail. The Romans are attacked and then West is captured by the Picts, so Fassbender assembles a rag-tag team of Dirty Dozen Romans who set out to rescue West. But they can’t pick the lock on his chains, so they run away from the Picts again and West stays captured. Then the second half of the movie is one long foot-chase across unforgiving landscapes with the Picts hot on their heels. And the movie never goes more than five minutes without a gory beheading or impalement.
Director Neil Marshall had a cult hit with the monsters and blonde babes in a cave horror movie, The Descent, which I’ve been meaning to see. He is famous for directing two of the very best Game of Thrones episodes; you know, the ones with armies of sword-wielding dudes fighting each other. This movie was his calling card for that gig. Marshall takes a relatively small budget of $12 million and turns it into an epic. That is the sign of a great director.
The action is top-notch with all sorts of creative hackings, beheadings, and piercings. Actually, there is so much gruesome killing that the movie becomes comical. Also, the movie never keeps moving and, since there is never much story to bog it down, it’s a fleet and effective thriller. The main failing of the movie is that Marshall, while great with action, is not so great with interpersonal relationships, even though he tries. Each of the Romans gets a heroic death and a manful cry of sadness from Fassbender, but we never understand why he gives a crap about these guys that he met 15 minutes ago. This would explain why the movie didn’t get much love at the box office. But this isn’t that big of a big detriment and, on Netflix, this movie stands out like a goddamn Titan compared to some of the other dreck I’ve watched.
Some highlights include Olga Kuryenko as the mute Terminator-like tracker Etain. You believe she is a force of nature to be reckoned with who never stops hunting you. Imogen Poots is far too radiant to let piddly things like a layer of grime, tattered frocks, and a facial scar dim her high-wattage charisma. She plays the emotional heart and soul of the movie, the only character who’s not a relentless killing machine, and she’s great. So great, in fact, that you wonder why Fassbender doesn’t just stay with her and skip the rest of the bloody denouement.
There are two main action set-pieces: one is the opening assault on a Roman garrison; the other is the Pictish massacre of a Roman Legion. These are some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in any Sword and Armor epic, historical or fantasy.
This is my kind of movie. I’m willing to overlook the mediocre plotting as the rest of the movie is so damn entertaining and shows how to make a hyper-violent action movie on a small budget. The pace is relentless. The action is violent and well-shot. I like how the team of Roman survivors is a hodgepodge of different ethnicities from around the world that would genuinely be in a Roman army. Also, I want to highlight Riz Ahmed, before he becomes a star. He makes his first appearance by taking out a Pict with a 30 foot cleaver toss. He announces he is Tarak the Cook. Too bad Ahmed is given literally nothing to do the rest of the movie except suffer a gruesome knee injury from a wussy tripping and then he’s quickly dispatched. Maybe there was a whole Tarak The Cook subplot that took away from the breakneck pacing and they cut it. But minor quibbles don’t dampen my enthusiasm. I highly recommend this movie.