I’m convinced Neil Marshall is one of the most underrated directors of our time. His first feature, “Dog Soldiers,” is one of the best werewolf movies ever, as well as one of the most effective action-horror combos ever conceived. He made caves scary in a way that would make “Sanctum” look like “Goonies” in “The Descent.” And that was only in his first two films. Unfortunately, since Marshall’s films are more than a little bloody, he is relegated to the so-called “Splat Pack,” whose numbers include Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. But Marshall’s talents lie beyond throwing pig’s blood and spaghetti on the screen, as the director succeeds in weaving together likable characters in taunt and exciting narratives. He’s back in rare form once again in the sword-n-sandals thriller “Centurion.”
When the film opens, Centurion Quintus Titus (soon-to-be-Magneto Michael Fassbender) has run into a bit of a rough patch. He’s the last survivor of a garrison completely demolished by Pictish guerrillas. He’s on the run from his captors, who have already tortured and humiliated him plenty. But it would seem Quintus’ luck is about to change. The famed Ninth Legion, lead by salt-of-the-earth General Titus Virilus (Dominic West), has been dispatched in a counter-attack against the Pict.
Soon, Quintus is rescued and made a part of their number. But anyone who knows their Roman history (or has just seen the previews for “The Eagle”) knows the Ninth Legion are a historical mystery. This highly-decorated military unit ominously vanished from the history books, leading to no small amount of speculation and legend. Marshall bloodily hammers down his version of the Ninth’s fate when their guide, the mute warrior Etain (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylengo), leads the troops into a trap. With Virilus captured and the Ninth massacred, Titus must lead a motley crew of survivors in a fight for survival. But the survivors soon find themselves pitted against the full wrath of their enemies when a botched rescue attempt leaves the Pict chieftain’s son dead. Pursued by the ruthless Etain, Titus must contend with hostiles in both the rugged terrain and within the remnants of the Ninth Legion to complete his mission and reach the safety Roman lines.
Marshall never pulls any punches throughout the film, with the movie kicking off with a spear to the groin in the first five minutes. But where other filmmakers may have faltered in the brutality, Marshall succeeds by balancing it with compelling characters with engaging personalities. From the camaraderie of the Ninth to Titus’ unwavering sense of duty, “Centurion” is filled with characters who kick the plot off with a bang instead of fighting against it. All the same, Marshall doesn’t gloss over the inherent brutality of the Roman Empire; he makes it very clear warriors like Etain are entirely justified given the atrocities she suffered at the hands of Roman soldiers. One member of the Ninth in particular jeopardizes the survival of the rest when he turns on not only non-combatants, but his own comrades as well. Similarly, the Picts are not depicted solely as barbarians, with Imogen Potts playing Arianne, an outcast Pict who aids the embattled Ninth in their escape. But the plot of “Centurion” never stops for political-correctness, with Marshall’s flawless pacing never missing a beat between one-liners, combat and commentary, all in one fluid motion.
Ultimately, the movie comes down two major confrontations. The battle between Titus’ forces and Etain’s is as bloody and thrilling as the entire movie leading up to it, but the confrontation between Titus and the aforementioned treacherous soldier is downbeat and contentious. Despite this rough note, the movie remains a symphony of one-liners, gore and sweeping adventure. Most of Marshall’s movies are as solid as they come, and “Centurion” is no exception. A must for fans of “Rome” or “Braveheart,” “Centurion” is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling Roman movies since “Gladiator.”
Own Centurion on DVD for $15.93 shipped from Wal-Mart.