Monday, August 29, 2011


In the days between Boadicea's revolt and the building of Hadrian's Wall, the expanding Roman empire and the natives of Great Britain were at a stalemate.  The expansion had effectively stopped, but the two sides would frequently skirmish.  Sometime in the 110s or 120s, the Roman Ninth Legion, who were assigned to the Roman-Briton frontier, disappeared from Roman records, which is strange, since they were fairly meticulous with their official paperwork.  Were they simply disbanded, with the men being assigned to other military groups?  Perhaps they fought and died in Germania?  Both are fairly reasonable possibilities, but since the last known location of the Ninth is in York, some believe that they met their fate in Northern England or Scotland.  Why the history lesson?  Centurion is one of two recent films to speculate on the fate of the Ninth Legion (the other being the Channing Tatum vehicle, The Eagle).  While this film does not claim to be factual, a little context helps put things in perspective.
Sexual fetish or prisoner of war?  Context makes a difference.

The Picts, a Scottish clan, have been using guerrilla warfare against the invading Romans for a while.  One night, they launch an attack on a Roman garrison, killing all but Quintus (Michael Fassbender), and only because he cursed them in their own language.  Why that matters when so many Picts in this movie speak English, I don't know, but Quintus is deemed "important" and is captured instead of being killed.  Meanwhile, the Ninth Legion is dispatched to kill some Picts for the glory of Rome; they are given a mute Pict tracker, Etain (Olga Kurylenko), to hunt down the rebellious Picts.  You may be wondering why a Pict would hunt her own people, and that's a good question.  The answer given is because she is loyal to Rome.  Obviously.  Quintus manages to escape his captors and accidentally runs into the Ninth.
He had them right where he wanted them
They kill the Picts chasing him, and Quintus agrees to accompany the Ninth to the Pict base.  Remember when you asked why the Romans trust a Pict guide?  Well, it turns out that the provided answer was not the correct one; she was guiding them into a trap.  The Ninth is massacred, with only a handful of soldiers surviving through luck or cowardice; the Picts also captured the general of the Legion, Titus (Dominic West) and brought him to their base camp.  As the ranking officer, Quintus is now in charge of the group.  What should they do?  They are depressingly far behind enemy lines, and Etain has shown a mad-on for hunting down Romans in general and this group of Romans in particular.  Can this centurion lead his men home to safety?
Not if Etain has nothing to say about it.  You know, because she's mute.

This is the second film I have seen and reviewed from director Neil Marshall, and I think I'm beginning to identify his strengths.  Centurion is a bloody and gory movie, which is exactly what any film about a Roman rebellion should be; if dozens of characters are supposed to be dying by sword and hatchet wounds, there damn well better be some severed body parts and blood.  The action scenes are good, and some of the death scenes were totally awesome.  My favorite example of the awesomeness comes from a character who has been speared, but then pushes the spear through his body to stab and kill his enemy.  It's probably harder than it looks.  Aside from the totally respectable violence, Marshall captured the natural beauty of Scotland in long-shot after long-shot of the group running for their lives.

Marshall doesn't do much with the characters, though.  The performances are all fine.  Michael Fassbender is suitably heroic and he is only marginally less of a tough guy than he was in 300.  Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko was convincing in her action scenes and...well, she was mute, so she didn't talk much.  The rest of the cast was capable with their parts; Dominic West was almost likable as the general, JJ Feild was kind of scummy, Liam Cunningham was decent as an old soldier, and Imogen Poots was okay as the curiously clean local witch.  Nobody gave a bad performance, but there was no depth to these characters.  I could care less about who lived and who died.  Thanks to this lack of likable characters, the adventure in the film lost any sense of urgency it might have had. 
"Not likable?  Perhaps you missed my smoldering stare...?"

The key to a good movie about soldiers is to make the audience give a crap about them as people.  Centurion doesn't even try to do this.  The film looks gorgeous at times and the action is fun to watch, which is especially impressive given the low budget, but the story never takes off because you never care what happens next. 
Death scene or sex scene?  You won't care which.
On the one hand, Centurion encourages me to watch another Neil Marshall movie because this one was a visual treat.  On the other hand, I can't imagine that Doomsday has a better story than this.  After the brutality of the initial battle, I had high hopes.  Centurion just doesn't live up to them.

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