As noted in my "quickie" reviews over the last 2 weeks of "The Road," "Sus," and "Up in the Air, I watch lots of movies (old and new) weekly, mostly at home, on cable TV, Netflix and Amazon primarily, usually as I’m working on S&A, but I rarely write about what I screen, if only because I don’t have the time. But I’ll make a concerted effort to do so from now on, and publish here. Consider them "quickies," continuing today with 2010’s "Centurion."
A Centurion was a commander of an army of 100 soldiers in ancient Rome – a title worn by Michael Fassbender as Quintus Dias, the only survivor of an attack on the Roman legionary fortress he commands, by the "savage" Scottish Picts.
He’s captured and held prisoner, but is eventually rescued by the legion of General Titus Flavius Virilus (played by Dominic West of "The Wire" fame), while on an ordered mission to seek out and exterminate the Picts, and their king, Gorlacon. However, all doesn’t go as planned, when the legion is betrayed and nearly wiped out in a surprise attack by the Picts, leading to the capture of Virilus. Quintus Dias and six others do survive the attack, and vow to rescue their captured general, instead of retreating to the safety of Roman jurisdiction.
Comparisons to other so-called contemporary "Swords & Sandals" flicks are inevitable – adventure films set in Biblical times or the classical era, loosely based on real history and mythology. This sub-genre of the historical epic feels like it’s worn itself out however (at least, in the meantime), given the number of films under that umbrella that have been released in the last decade or so; a revival of sorts that can likely be attributed to the immense success of Ridley Scott’s "Gladiator" in 2000; followed by "Alexander" (2004), "King Arthur" (2004), "Troy" (2004), "Kingdom Of Heaven" (2005), "300" (2007), "The Last Legion" (2007), "Robin Hood" (2010), "Clash Of The Titans" (2010), and more, including "Centurion" (2010) too of course, which really doesn’t offer anything new to radicalize the genre.
It’s content with being a stripped down version of many of its epic predecessors – a brisk 90-minute plot-driven adrenaline rush. The viewer is instantly thrown into the thick of the story, from the opening credits, not quite relenting until the end titles roll; and even then, there is no obvious finality to it. Not that it’s lacking in depth, but it’s obvious that the filmmakers weren’t entirely interested in the audience’s connection with the film’s characters. You’re given little opportunity to breathe or even think about all that transpires in front of you.
At the risk of sounding sexist, it’s very much a guy’s movie; the violence is plenty and bloody, with a preponderance of graphic set-pieces, in which limbs are severed, heads are cut off, torsos are penetrated with spears, urine is used in torture, and more. The tag line on one of the film’s posters says it all: "History Is Written In Blood."
Indeed "Centurion" is flowing with it.
It’s gritty, yet oddly beautiful, thanks to the mountainous Scottish highlands, towns and villages in which the film was partly shot, as well as the Surrey hill ranges in England. Although, its color palette is expectedly drab – traditional ancient battle armor, against a snowy winter chill, all wrapped up in a greyish-blueish tint.
The performances are strong, from Fassbender (before "X-Men," "Shame," and "12 Years a Slave"), West, and much of their supporting cast, despite the thin script they were given to work with. Brit Noel Clarke as Macros, one of the 6 survivors, is present, and has 1 or 2 moments to shine, but is really not given very much to do. And "Bond" girl Olga Kurylenko as the mute but deadly tracker, Etain, looked like she was trying a little too hard to mask the glamorous cover girl underneath all that "warrior paint."
It’s attempt at a love story was expected, but still felt forced, and really could have been omitted. While finding respite from the gruesomeness of life at the time, in the angelic face of a banished beauty believed to be a sorcerer, may, on its surface, seem like a welcomed shift, it was a transparent effort.
Films like this hark back to what we could say were much less complicated, yet more violent times – relatively speaking of course. Ideas like duty and honor were held in high regard almost above all else. Men were willing to die for each other and for country. There really is no good nor bad here, only survival. You fought for what you wanted or you perished. But director Neil Marshall doesn’t expound much on these ideas, nor can I say there’s any obvious commentary here on his part.
The running voice-over throughout the film felt unnecessary – whether as Dias’ interior monologue, or even as a griot of sorts. It served no instructive purpose. The imagery and dialogue were informative enough.
Finally, don’t go looking for a history lesson here; It’s not quite revisionist history, but certainly some liberties have been taken in the telling of the tale of the 9th Legion. Ultimately, the intent here was to make an entertaining action thriller, and to that end, it’s certainly a mostly active 90 minutes, but unfortunately empty enough that it won’t linger on much after you exit the theater.
The film is streaming via Netflix currently. Trailer below: