Neil Marshall is one of those directors who, at least in my book, ratchets down a notch with each new film he releases. The more money he has at his disposal it seems, the less satisfying the final result. His first feature, Dog Soldiers (2002) ranks amongst my favourite B's of the last ten years. The Descent (2005) was an unbearably-claustrophobic horror that I quite enjoyed, in spite of my skittishness about the genre. I didn't like Doomsday (2008) as much as Joe did, but admired it for its innovative reworking of a tired genre, the apocalypse-actioner.
Centurian (2010) is a much bigger movie in every sense. It has real stars, a middling-budget (used here to good effect), a decent script (also penned by Marshall) with a good hook (Behind Enemy Lines meets The Warriors meets Gladiator) and some stunning cinematography. Centurion’s most notable feature however, strangely isn't any of these things. It is unbelievably violent.
The film is set in 117 in northern Britannia, at the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. The local Picts (who look disturbingly similar to Klingons, by the way), utilizing a successful combination of ancient guerrilla warfare and shear viciousness, have held out against the advancing Romans for the better part of 20 years. One might say that the Romans are having trouble depicting England. Centurion centers on a group of seven Romans (led by Michael Fassbender), who are stranded behind enemy lines after their invading legion is slaughtered by the Picts. Their goal is to escape the marauding Rochesters who are hunting them all the while, and get back to Roman-held territory and safety in the south.
I'm going to give Marshall the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that Centurion is his attempt to deromanticize the violence associated with war - to expose the valorous and bloodless sword fights from films like Gladiator for what they really are: brutal acts of horrifying murder, moral or not. I've never counted the number of beheadings in a film before, but I lost track during Centurion. 30?... that might be low. The violence is so relentless, blood-soaked and grotesque that the film almost collapses in on itself. I think it was meant to be anti-war and anti-authority, but there's possibly a little too much curious fanboy/blood-lust delight laying just under the surface of Centurion to make it convincing. Perhaps a better read on the underlying point of the film is the concept that the West (proto-Westerner Romans in this case) can’t defeat the local populations of lands they invade without emerging as villains themselves. There are no “good” sides in Centurion. Both the Picts and Romans are savages bent on each other's destruction. The few decent and honourable people depicted in Centurion are themselves victims of the larger forces at play... politics and warfare have always gone hand in hand . So....some things never change?
Centurion is 10 times more violent than it had to be to make its point and even though it's only 97 minutes long, still drags in the final act. On a possible upside, it's got shitloads of nasty, crunchy, slicey battle scenes, if that happens to turn your crank. It's Rambo violent. You've been warned.