I’m surprised Centurion wasn’t developed as a miniseries. Set in 117 A.D. as Roman soldiers attempt to overthrow the Picts in northern Britain, Neil Marshall’s film tells what could have been an 8-hour story in just over 90 minutes. After quick introductions to the characters, a surprise ambush by the Picts leaves nearly every Roman soldier dead. Seven manage to escape – one of whom is our narrator, a Centurion named Quintus (Michael Fassbender). After an attempt to save their captured General Titus (Dominic West) goes wrong, the men spend the remainder of the film being pursued the relentless Picts, who are led by a mute female warrior, Etain, who is seeking revenge on the Romans who killed her family and ripped out her tongue. These characters would have been right at home in a longer, more thoughtful historical epic, but Neil Marshall (The Descent) has created a quick, thrilling, and ultra-violent game of hide and seek that serves them well.
The Romans want to kill the Picts, the Picts want to kill the Romans, and that’s all there is to it. Characters may have less dimension than the first iteration of Pong, but the actors, Fassbender especially, perform like the blood is real. Beyond the regularly unbearable dialogue (“Sometimes there are scars that can’t be seen.”), even the most basic narrative elements are simplified to sub-quantum levels. Quintus is obviously the film’s hero, but why? The Romans are the invaders, and the Picts – though dirtier and more prone to growling – are merely defending their land. Objectively speaking, neither side is that likable. Despite this, we root for team that possesses the narrator. Simple. Fine. Done. Go Rome! I can accept these examples of Centurion’s complete lack of depth because I can also accept that it is performed and produced so excitingly. Sam McCurdy’s photography of northern Britain’s dark landscapes is often breathtaking, Ilan Eshkeri’s score is generic, yet rousing, and Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) once again reminds us he deserves the lead role in just about everything.
Without a hint of pretension, heads are sliced off, love interests are introduced out of nowhere, and impossible-to-win battles are somehow won. Action movies have been so preoccupied with forced nostalgia and over-hyped gimmicks lately that it’s a treat to see a movie like Centurion embrace something so simple. I don’t need 3D or Sylvester Stallone to enjoy myself at an action movie. The glasses and Stallone’s arms just make me too uncomfortable.