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CENTURION

This bloody historical epic, the most ambitious film made by the British horrormeister Neil Marshall, is too shallow and ham-fisted for its own good. Set in the outer territories of Ancient Rome, it’s notable for containing enough limb slicing and head lopping to fill a half dozen traditional splatter flicks.

The Package
     2009’s CENTURION was the fourth feature directed by Neil Marshall, following DOG SOLDIERS (2002), THE DESCENT (2005) and DOOMSDAY (2008)--and a definite step down. Nonetheless, it received surprisingly strong reviews, and somehow got an R rating in the US. Its financial showing, however, was as expected: it flopped, and since then Marshall has disappeared into the less auspicious world of episodic television.
     If CENTURION is remembered at all today it’s as an early starring role for the currently-in-demand Michael Fassbender, as well as Dominic West and Olga Kurylenko, all of whom have since moved on to bigger and better things.

The Story
     Northern England, AD 117: at the outer edges of the Roman Empire the Picts, a tribe of kill-happy maniacs, are disrupting the march of progress. The studly Quintus Dias survives a raid by the Picts on a Roman outpost, and joins up with a detachment of soldiers, led by the heroic General Virilus, into Pictish territory to exterminate as many of them as they can. Bad idea!
     Before long the gang is waylaid by Picts and Virilus is taken prisoner. Quintus is placed in charge of Virilus’ legion, and promises to keep the men alive. Easier said than done, as the Picts, after killing Virilus, set off in pursuit of Quintus and his men. The pursuers are led by the tongue-less warrior babe Etain, one of the most bloodthirsty of Picts.
     On their way to the nearest Roman garrison, Quintus and his men happen upon a comely lass who’s been accused of witchcraft by the Picts and banished. She encourages Quintus and co. to stay the night in her hut, which they do. A romance nearly blossoms between her and Quintus, but (due to the fact that much of their relationship ended up on the cutting room floor) never gets very far.
     The following day Quintus and his men arrive at the garrison. They find it deserted, its inhabitants having been slaughtered by Picts. Deciding they’re “tired of running,” Quintus and co. elect to stay in the garrison and fight Etain and her approaching army.

The Direction
     CENTURION is well staged, as we’ve come to expect from Neil Marshall, but also excessively bombastic and lacking in character development, with protagonists who all look alike. Outside the alluring Olga Kurylenko as the warrior babe Etain (as anyone who’s seen DOOMSDAY well knows, Marshall has a thing for tough chicks), none of the actors make any impression. Marshall’s ambitions were evidently quite high-minded, but the film ultimately has all the depth of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and none of the narrative heft.
     In Marshall’s defense, the 98 minute version of CENTURION that’s currently in circulation was reportedly shorn of around 30 minutes of footage from its original cut. There was also the fact that, quite simply, Marshall’s budget just wasn’t substantial enough to fully flesh out his ambitions (as he admits several times during his DVD audio commentary).
     Taken purely as a testosterone-fuelled gore fest CENTURION delivers, with some extremely inspired kills (my favorite being the guy running a sword through his own body and that of the guy he’s fighting). The violence, however, quickly loses its impact, given that there’s so much of it. A mid-film fight to the death between Etain and General Virilus, for instance, has none of the shock and upset it was meant to possess, as it follows so much miscellaneous bloodletting.
     Yet Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy succeed in creating darkly gorgeous visuals that in their odd way compliment the gory mayhem--which is ultimately all this film has to offer.

 
Vital Statistics

CENTURION
Pathe Productions/UK Film Council

Director: Neil Marshall
Producers: Christian Colson, Robert Jones
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Cinematography: Sam McCurdy
Editing: Chris Gill
Cast: Michael Fassbinder, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Noel Clarke, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey, Riz Ahmed, J.J. Field, Dimitri Leonidas, Imofen Poots, Ulrich Thomsen

     

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