Neil Marshall made The Descent, one of the best horror movies of the last decade, and apparently that has made him somewhat immune from fanboy criticism. If he makes a slow-moving film punctuated by beautifully shot scenes of poetic decapitations (a little too infrequently, for my tastes, as those are the only scenes worth watching in the Centurion), it’s because he meant to make a slow-moving, lethargic and ultimately pointless film. That’s the genius of Marshall, you see? It’s not hammy dialogue and a threadbare plot; it’s a B-movie! If he makes an underwhelming Roman epic, it’s because he wanted to make an underwhelming Roman epic. And we should thank Marshall for the opportunity to sit through his listless mess. Why? Because he made The Descent.
Set in 117 A.D., the Centurion preamble tells us that the Romans are taking over the world. However, up in the harsh regions of Brittania, the Romans are being picked off by the local Picts, who prefer to use guerrilla tactics to protect their territory instead of lining up and being summarily slaughtered by the massive Roman force. The 3000 strong Ninth Legion of Roman Warriors, led by Gen. Titus Virilus (Dominic West), are ordered to wipe out the Picts, but the Picts end up annihilating the Romans instead, save for a few survivors, led by centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who prefers not to wear a shirt, even in the snow (that’s a real man, ladies and gentlemen). The seven survivors are stuck well behind enemy lines and have to use their wits (and their swords) to find their way home (see also: The Warriors, which I appreciated more after deducing Centurion’s origins). A mute Pict tracker (Olga Kurylenko) with blue eye-liner and no tongue (to at least save us from her painfully overwrought dialogue) is tasked with tracking down the survivors and ridding them of their pesky heads. She is what Tyra Banks might call fierce in a fit of drunkenness.
My problem with Centurion from the outset was the desire to root for the underdogs, and even though the Picts are savage, uncivilized blood-thirsty beasts, it’s hard to root for anyone associated with the Roman Empire, even if they belonged to a particular faction that’s been mostly wiped out. The Picts would later merge with the Gaels to form what is now Scotland, and maybe Englishman Marshall has some animosity toward the Scots that brings a different dynamic to the proceedings. Otherwise, the only compelling reason I could find for rooting for the remaining survivors was that the Picts captured and tortured McNulty (bastards!), Fassbender was really good in Inglourious Basterds, and “Doctor Who’s” Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) was among the survivors, although he is a weasel in Centurion.
Centurion is a chase film, which means that the entire sum of the film can be reduced to run, fight, rest, run, fight, rest, run, fight, run, fight. And because most of the characters are scruffy white guys with shields and swords, it’ll take at least half an hour to separate out who belongs to what army. I’ll grant this, however: The fights were bloody fantastic, visceral and deliciously gratuitous; that is, if you’re a fan of an ax to the face (who isn’t?). Clearly, Marshall loves a good dismemberment, and the kills are chock full of mindless B-movie goodness. Unfortunately, the script is just as mindless as the kills are. Indeed, if Marshall had strung all the fight scenes together, it would’ve made for an enjoyable short film, and it would’ve been no less pointless than the end result of Centurion.
But then again, if you’re bored by most of Centurion, it’s because Marshall obviously wanted it that way. If you don’t like Centurion, it’s clearly Marshall’s intent. He did direct The Descent, after all.