Neil Marshall + Michael Fassbender + the Ninth Legion = SOLD.
There is something distinctly old-fashioned about Neil Marshall’s Centurion. Remove the geysers of blood and the f-bombs and Marshall’s frenetic, hand-held style, and you have a movie that is not so different than what old Hollywood churned out on a fairly regular basis. It’s not hard to imagine Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn or any of the old matinee idols in the lead role of exiled Roman soldier Quintus Dias, played here by Michael Fassbender (who’s got a classic matinee idol look about him, oddly enough). But more importantly, Marshall’s film feels old-fashioned in how straight-forward it is: the plot moves along at a brisk pace, and while there’s no want for action, the story isn’t halted for spectacle’s sake - instead growing naturally out of the plot and characters.
Much has been said about the Ninth Legion, the three-thousand Roman centurions who virtually disappeared while marching from York to Scotland sometime in the 2nd century AD. There’s been no shortage of speculative fiction over what happened to the Ninth, explanations of their fate spanning everything from being dispersed and becoming mercenaries in the east to alien abduction. Like Roanoke, it’s a scenario rife with story potential - any number of explanations could be devised to solve the mystery of what happened. Marshall here does away with any overly complex explanations. In fact, the film’s not so much a story about the Ninth Legion - instead serving as the backdrop for a rather simple chase-survival story.
Roman centurion Quintus Dias is the sole survivor of a Pictish raid of his garrison, and escapes with little more than the skin on his back. He is taken in by the Ninth Legion, led by General Virilus (Dominic West), who have been ordered to march into Pict territory and end their conflict in Britain once and for all. The only problem is the legion’s scout, the Brigantian Etain (Olga Kurylenko), who betrays the Romans by walking them straight into a massacre. The legion is obliterated, leaving only seven survivors and the general captured by the Picts. Dias leads the survivors in a rescue attempt for Virilus, but the son of the Pictish king Gorlacon is killed in the process, sending a band of warriors (lead by Etain) on a blood-fueled quest against the last remnants of the Ninth.
What follows is a no-frills, honest-to-God chase movie, lean and mean and cutting right to the bone (both literally and figuratively). Perhaps a bit too lean, as the remaining members of the Ninth don’t get much insight before they’re picked off one at a time by Etain and her warriors. All of them except for Fassbender - he truly is the most exciting actor of his generation, equally dazzling in serious, dramatic roles as he is running and hacking up ancient Scotsmen. Fassbender really makes the film his own, bringing pathos when needed, intensity when necessary and - later on, when stumbling upon a young woman’s cottage - a gentle warmth that endears us to his character. It would have been easy to take Quintus Dias as written and slip into the sort of blandness the heroes of these types of movies generally fall into, but Fassbender brushes all that aside to become the best part of the whole movie.
Equally great is Dominic West, who’s only misfortune is appearing in the movie so little. West has been constantly undercut by the film industry - this is an actor who gave one of the finest performances of the last decade as The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, and yet Hollywood seemingly only has a place for him as a bit-player in genre B-movies. But little screen time or no, West throws himself into the role of Virilus with relish, giving us a general who has no problem arm-wrestling and drunkenly brawling with his own men - yet still a commanding enough presence to lead them into battle.
As stated above, the rest of the centurions get very little to do - largely existing to serve the plot as cannon fodder for the Picts chasing after them. Oh sure, they get the obligatory quiet scene where each man tells his life story in exactly two-three sentences, but that doesn’t really count as actual development *. As such, fine British actors like Noel Clarke, JJ Feild and David Morrisey get lost in the shuffle, despite their best efforts. The only member of the band who stands out is Liam Cunningham, and that’s largely because the actor can do more with a grunt than most can with a full soliloquy.
It’s not all a sausage-fest, however, as we have Olga Kurylenko and Imogen Poots around to keep the boys in check. Kurylenko’s performance as Etain is the second-best thing in the movie, as the actress gets a truly great character to portray. Etain has a mad bloodlust for the Romans, who murdered her family before her eyes and cut out her tongue as a child. Having no dialogue, Kurylenko gets by purely through her eyes and her physicality - several times throughout the film Etain is referred to as a wolf for her almost supernatural tracking skills, a facet that shines through in Kurylenko’s animalistic performance. Not bad for a model-turned-actress.
Imogen Poots gets a slightly-less exciting role, but is equally compelling as Arianne, the girl Fassbender and the others stumble upon in their escape. She too is a Pict, but one who was scarred and exiled by her people for purporting to be a witch. Poots here gives off an ethereal quality; there is something otherworldly about her look - she possesses an unnatural beauty that only enhances her earthy character, who catches fish by hand and generally looks after herself in the wilds. She winds up being a rather important character in Quintus’ journey (that of the life-changing, leave-everything-behind-and-settle-down variety), one that the actress sells marvelously.
The film rushes by at a rollicking pace, filled to the brim with swordfights and chases, each bloodier ** than the last. Marshall has always been a gore-hound at heart, but to his credit is as equally interested in strong storytelling as he is in dismemberment and arrows to the eye. It’s all delivered in Marshall’s usual style: shaky and quickly-cut. But unlike many of his peers working today, you never lose sense of what’s going on in the various battles, Marshall keeping the major beats relatively clear. The director also peppers in an underlying dark sense of humor, such as when the surviving centurions kill a deer and - since they have no time to cook any meat, being on the run and all - open its stomach to see if there’s anything worth eating *** (“It’s only half-digested”).
The film is so straight-ahead you might be forgiven for taking too much of it at the surface-level, but look deeper and there is some strong material to dig into. And it’s really that straightforwardness that lends the movie it’s thematic strength - Marshall is interested primarily in telling a good story, so the undercurrents that are there aren’t pounded out with a narrative sledgehammer and thus drained of all effect. For instance, the film presents the Romans as the “good guys” and the Picts as the “bad”. But the film isn’t so cut-and-dry with its morality as it is with its plot - the Picts have every right to do what they do here to the Romans, considering they’ve A.) invaded their land, B.) done horrors to families like Etain’s and C.) killed Gorlacon’s son, for really no reason - you can almost imagine another movie that follows the Picts instead of Quintus and the surviving centurions. Marshall nails home this ambiguous morality at the end, where the Roman governor Agricola (played by Belloq himself, Paul Freeman) declares that the loss of the Ninth Legion should be kept a mystery, in order to keep the other Celtic tribes from rising up against them. History seems doomed to repeat itself over and over again, as Dias says in the last line of the film, “My name is Quintus Dias. I am a fugitive of Rome, and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.”
Centurion ultimately arrives at the conclusion that people are better off making a life and family on their own, rather than getting together and becoming part of this whole “civilization” thing. Considering how Quintus Dias’ story ends, I can’t say I disagree.
* And honestly, I’d rather get no character development than the half-hearted attempt we get here (and so many more movies of this ilk).
** Although much of it is the recent trend of weightless, CG blood, which - no matter how plentiful - will never, ever substitute for some good old Karo syrup and Red Dye no. 5.
*** It’s interesting just how funny the act of eating is in the movie - there’s another scene later on where the men cautiously eat a mushroom stew cooked by Arianne, afraid they might be poisoned. Marshall holds his camera still (for a change) on the dining actors, and somehow watching starving men wolf the stew down becomes oddly hilarious.