Centurion Packs a Fun Action Punch
By Kristin Battestella
After my disappointment with The Last Legion, I was keen to see 2010’s other Ninth Legion spectacle, Centurion. Now that I’ve been obsessed with the film’s star Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Shame) for over a year, this Roman road rage movie from director Neil Marshall is a doubly good yarn.
Centurion Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is captured by Pict leader Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen, The World is Not Enough) but escapes to rejoin General Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) and the Ninth Legion. Unfortunately, the Ninth Legion is subsequently decimated in a Pict attack thanks to the trickery of their scout Etain (Olga Kurylenko) - a deadly tracker who had her tongue cut out by the Romans. Dias and fellow soldiers Brick (Liam Cunningham), Bothos (David Morrissey), Thax (J.J. Feild, Captain America), Marcus (Noel Clarke, Doctor Who), and cook Tarak (musician Riz Ahmed) survive the raid and learn Virilus has been captured by Gorlacon. They attempt a rescue in the wilds of Caledonia, but Etain’s pursuit drives the Romans deeper into the frosty and deadly highlands.
I like writer and director Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers very much, and the same mix of character fun, action, and surprises again carries Centurion. While Fassbender’s narration is fine, with just the right intriguing old world voice adding thought and realism to the opening violence, our tale is a little disjointed to start. The voiceover comes and goes throughout the film, and a little too much time is taken to set up each scene and establish location after location. Thankfully, once Marshall’s real hunter/huntee story gets going, things move along just fine. Ironically, everything in Centurion’s trailer is taken from that first troublesome 10 minutes of the movie, and yet, this isn’t a bad thing. Not only is it nice to not be spoiled by a preview, but the trailer gives us the action that starts off Centurion and thus leaves the serious segments, a little romance, and a touch of humor as unexpected pleasures. The culturally well-rounded cast is also very pleasing to see- even if some may somehow find the blend unrealistic. Is the language anachronistic? Yes. While there’s no doubt soldiers were foul mouthed back then, the modern slang isn’t over abundantly used ala A Knight’s Tale and the f-bombs don’t detract from the film. What is a little more irritating is that the unfortunate dialogue seems too undeveloped first draft or even borrowed ideology. Soldiers ‘do the dying’ is too Starship Troopers, while the rumors of an enemy not eating, sleeping, and never stopping in their unhuman quest sounds straight out of The Searchers. This broad scripting and iffy footing hinder what could have seriously strengthened Centurion into Gladiator glory or hidden gem status like Black Death.
Fortunately, there are several fine underlying themes of loneliness and outsidership layering Centurion. Brigantes orphan Etain is not truly of the Picts, and Quintus grew up with gladiators, not soldiers. Numidian Marcos and legionnaire Leonidas (hehe) are via Greece, Tarak is a Hindu Kush cook, and Imogen Poots (Jane Eyre) is not exactly happy as the cast out Pict witch Arianne. Everyone is on the wrong side or in the wrong place or isn’t where they really want to be- adding some dimension to what should be a straightforward chase flick. Wow, a little inside journey amid all the fast-paced blood, decapitations, and marathons in this big, violent spectacle! Okay, so parts of Centurion play like an overlong knock-off of The Three Hunters scenes in The Two Towers. Sometimes it’s tough to know who the heck is who amid the full Roman dressings and bloody battle gear. A few folks even seem kind of unnecessary, I grant you. Nevertheless, the action package with drama bonuses here is better than similar cross-culture clashes like Pathfinder or that completely confused Arthurian/Ninth combo The Last Legion or the 2004 King Arthur. Centurion explores villainy and sympathy on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans- who did wrong by Etain and those injustices are certainly mentioned - are the good guys being chased, right? Etain should be the bad girl, and the Picts aren’t saints, but we definitely understand their problem with the Roman occupation and can enjoy their revenge. Quintus’ growing Pict mentality mirrors Etain’s pursuit skills- which is a nice, if expected, parallel. There’s great camaraderie among our rag tag Roman fugitives, too. The soldiers have to introduce themselves to each other, which is a sneaky way to slip the exposition in over a fireside meal. Time is taken to know the characters and expand Centurion- though I do wish there was more full-on character development and realization of ideas only hinted at or touched upon.
We shouldn’t be surprised that someone from 300 (technically two some ones with Dominic West appearing) is playing a badass centurion, and yet it’s very easy to accept the Irish-German Michael Fassbender as the titular Roman. Before Fully Realizing The Fass, I kept going, ‘Where do I know that guy from? Haven’t I seen that guy before?’ His concluding declaration in the trailer, “I am a soldier of Rome! I will not yield!” was actually what solidified Centurion as a must see film for me, even BF (Before Fass). Some actors can make such a defiance kind of laughable. Really, Tom Cruise in a Roman legion- bull and a load of it! When Fassbender roars such, however, we believe him. While Centurion is obviously not as quality as the likes of Hunger and Fish Tank finery, Fassbender as Quintus nonetheless bundles up with dirty travel, rage, and rough sword fighting. He commands the audience’s uncompromising attention throughout, and the aforementioned narration makes Quintus personal, soulful, would-be heroic. I was surprised to hear in an interview recently that Fassbender himself didn’t like Centurion or was displeased with his acting here. Even if the material given to them is somewhat unrealized, the performances here are top form and keep Centurion from being just a total chopfest.
I’ve no doubt Fassbender gave his usual chameleon fervor while making this picture. Otherwise, how in the hell could this decidedly non-Roman Irish dude look and sound so Ben-Hur? Fassy also looks spiffy on horseback; it needs to be said- even if that goofy helmet hampers his first lead stateside just a little bit! Fortunately, Fassbender’s great use of languages is delightful, and I confess, sometimes I just like to listen to him. Visually lovely as Centurion is, I may have listened to it in the background while I type more times than I’ve actually seen it! Quintus is a great soldier, yet flawed in his leadership. He doubts himself internally but unflinchingly does what he has to do- this is not a super pretty Fassy movie for the ladies thanks to the dirt and violence. And yet, there’s a touch of romantic softness here that breaks the action with serious reflection and takes time to sit down with our fine cast amid all the crazy pursuits. Imogen Poots’ initially unexpected but somewhat obvious and broadly written Arianne doesn’t make Centurion super sappy by any means. Her tragic and exiled supposed necromancer is well done in one on one scenes with the sensitive Fassy. Strange that it needs to be said do to the violent nature of the film, but Centurion is not a chick flick-although I think some new Fass ladies may indeed find it as such. I must also share that it is a little weird to not be writing about Fassbender from my own initial unknowing or his own then-obscurity. Does one look at Centurion and see an Oscar winner the way Shame is getting hardware acclaim? No. But do you see someone who has all the ingredients to become a star? Abs-o-tute-ly!
Though billed quite highly for what is a somewhat smaller role in Centurion, Dominic West (also in The Devil’s Whore with a pre-famous Fassbender, too) doesn’t have much to chew on as beloved Roman General Flavius Virilus. He’s fun and fits the part of, well, a beloved Roman General. He arm wrestles with the men, they’d die for him, he’s ruthless but loyal, and kicks ass to the end. Fin. Some viewers might also have a major problem with a Bond Girl in Ancient Britain, but I like Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) as the non-speaking and looking deadly Etain. For a babe, she does fine with what’s given to her, and be honest; it’s tough anytime a performer can’t talk. Kurylenko’s freaky eyes and svelte intensity have no time for exposition and carry a sexy and predatory menace. Etain isn’t dressed skimpy like its One Million Years B.C. either, which helps her to be taken seriously in this kick ass role reversal. After all, she’s not really a villain- the Romans made her do it! As physical and full of presence as Fassbender is, it’s great to see Quintus and Etain go head to head, and Kurlenko keeps up! Liam Cunningham (Hunger, Dog Soldiers) and David Morrissey (State of Play, Red Riding) are also great sardonic bastards, old soldiers who can call some of Centurion’s internal crap out when they see it. Though loveably cranky together, I do worry they are a little too much of the same cloth. As to the other guys’ likeability? Eh, not so much. We simply dislike whom we’re supposed to dislike or never get to know the rest. It seems seven men on the run was a bit too much for Centurion.
Would Centurion have been better as a complete, serious historical drama? Probably. Was Marshall going for drama above action? No, and the visual presentation here is very cool. The photography, colors, and choreography look good. We don’t have modern herky-jerky camerawork; we can see every sword swipe and axe chop in what smartly seems more like natural, saturated, grainy wartime video. The aerial footage and snowy mountain locations are lovely, along with sharp camera angles and nontraditional battle filmmaking. Some of the nighttime action is tough to see, but the interior candlelight is perfection. The décor and costuming all around looks and feels authentic. Even if we don’t want to live there thanks to the ruthless fighting and harsh climate, we want to stay awhile thanks to cute, warm riverside huts and tents filled with Roman finery. The stylized violence is meant to be priority in Centurion, and those battle scenes are indeed sweet. The clashing of Roman organization mixed with Pict guerilla butchery is well done. Technically, Centurion can really go either way with an audience. Historical lovers reading into the subtext and statements will not like the gore galore, but action viewers can just mute Centurion and see all the pleasing battle glory. The rousing music- both high marches and bittersweet to accentuate somber slow motion- caps it all off, too. But of course, the battle violence is always louder than the conversations, the onscreen translations are tough to see, and some names or plot elements are confusing without subtitles. Normally, I don’t like long opening credits, either, as nowadays films just get right to it, but the graphics here are quite cool. Those words sweeping over the Scottish Highlands are a must see in high definition!
The cast for Centurion is there, the ideas and interest, layers and subtext are ready to go. While it delivers on the action and visuals, there is a lingering ‘what could have been’ on the full drama. It would seem this is bad, but I do really, really like this film. It’s quite entertaining thanks to the cast, and do to my continued confoundedness as to how Channing Tatum succeeds in Hollywood, I’m also not really looking forward to yet another Ninth film speculation, The Eagle. I do, however, have a few nitpicks from Centurion. While the accuracy of the Gaelic languages might be a peeve to some, I am too clueless in that area and it sounds of the atmosphere enough for me. Liam Cunningham, however, is left-handed, a Roman no-no sinistra, and Etain the purported part wolf can sniff men downwind but can’t smell their bloody wounds in a confined hut? There are some inconsistencies, yes, but overall Centurion is a fun action yarn. Accept it for what it is instead of what it could or should be, and Centurion becomes a bloody Britannia guilty pleasure.