So many genre films are so stuffed with pointless sound and incident that you can’t help but feel as if you’re watching the film and the corresponding DVD outtakes at once. Seemingly no footage has been parsed for you, as the filmmakers have apparently made no decisions. (A movie about giant robots, based on a commercial for toys, has no right to a running time exceeding Ikiru‘s.) Sadly, genre films valuing storytelling efficiency have been largely relegated to release patterns that were once reserved for “art films,” and writer-director Neil Marshall’s Centurion is such an example.
Marshall has a number of predilections that can lend themselves to over-interpretation, particularly a penchant for warrior women. He likes to shoot his women—normally fashioned to resemble bikers from 1980s future-shock action films—up close as they sweat and bleed in intimate down-and-dirty battles that usually conclude with an ax destroying someone’s head. Marshall’s confrontations are faintly sexual, but that’s mostly a byproduct of his simple horror-movie fetish. It cheapens deeper horror movies to look for more in Marshall’s work, and it misrepresents a promising director who makes efficient, pleasurable, no-nonsense genre films.
Centurion, set in 117 AD, concerns the legendary Roman Ninth Legion’s misguided attempt to fold Britain into their vast empire—which stretched, as the film tells us, “from Egypt to Spain, and East as far as the Black Sea.” The problem is a fierce tribe of guerrilla warriors called the Picts, who butcher the Ninth immediately, leaving a few scramblers in a race across the barren northern British countryside for their lives. The initial tension of the film springs from an idle curiosity. You wonder how Marshall is going to get around an obvious problem: The assumption that he’s asking you to cheer a vast empire’s campaign to enslave a smaller nation that has found a clever means of retaliation. To his credit, Marshall is aware of this pitfall, and his story resolves itself in a manner that underlines Rome’s egomania and hypocrisy—exhibiting more empathy and common sense than respected Oscar-pandering gore films such as the stupid, pompous Gladiator.
But Centurion, in the Marshall tradition, is mostly about blood and guts. The film is refreshingly pared of the faux-history lessons that plague these kinds of films, thankfully reducing the formula to a series of manly proclamations, foot races, near-escapes, and the more-than-occasional arrow or sword that pierces an extremely vital appendage, and Marshall’s characteristically blunt staging has never been more effective. Centurion is the kind of B movie you watch on a Saturday night, your entire reaction encapsulated in one critically dodgy but apropos sentiment: “It kicks ass.”
The DVD vividly maintains the film's deliberately harsh and ugly color scheme, which is primarily a series of various stark whites and muddy browns. (The brutal snow-capped mountains pop out at you.) The sound mix is also excellent: The medleys of swords clanging and arrows flying fully justify your expectations of this sort of film.
The extras are plentiful, enthusiastic, and, in the typical DVD tradition, mostly redundant. The writer-director/crew commentary is compromised of traditional making-of anecdotes, which are repeated with faint variation throughout the various other interviews and behind-the-scenes features. You can watch "Blood, Fire & Fury: Behind the Scenes of Centurion," if you're so inclined, and comfortably skip the rest.
Centurion is the kind of B movie you watch on a Saturday night, your entire reaction encapsulated in one critically dodgy but apropos sentiment: "It kicks ass."