Forget the ab-flexing, over-stylized, waxed chests of 300. Those pretty boys would last about five seconds in the brutal battles of Centurion, the new action flick from bloodthirsty writer/director Neil Marshall (Doomsday, The Descent). Although the director has rarely shied from bloodshed, Centurion marks a new level of gritty, gory brutality, even for Marshall. Think Saving Private Ryan in the second century.
As the legend goes, the Roman Ninth Legion marched into Scotland around A.D. 117 only to vanish into thin air. Tall tales of their mysterious disappearance range from starvation to more far-fetched, supernaturally tinged theories. Marshall grew up near Hadrian's Wall, built shortly after the events of Centurion, which piqued his interest to explore the history behind the period. His take theorizes a series of deadly battles between the Romans and the Picts, a mysterious group of tribesmen once inhabiting the area that later became Scotland.
Michael Fassbender headlines the cast as Quintus Dius, a centurion leading a raid on a Pict camp to rescue their beloved General Virilus (Dominic West). The mission goes awry when an unsavory centurion senselessly murders the son of the Pict leader, leading the tribesmen to a relentless hunt of the fleeing Romans. The Picts are out for revenge, medieval-style.
Now, with the story and historical mumbo-jumbo out of the way, let's get to the good part. Centurion is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall action movie, first and foremost. Sure, there's some story and a little historical background sprinkled along the way, but action is what this is all about, not giving audiences a chance to catch their breath in between beheadings. The adrenaline pumps from the opening frames as warriors slice and dice heads and limbs, splattering enough blood on the lens to make other Roman tales feel tame by comparison. From start to finish, there is rarely a break in the action.
Gone is the stylization of more modern sword-and-sandal warfare epics or the slow-motion muscle flexing and facial grimaces of Braveheart or Gladiator. Marshall's action is quick, chaotic and real, reveling in the violence at every turn. Thw writer/director also expertly utilizes sound to up the action ante, adding ear-piercingly brutal clangs and slices to match the chaos and keep audiences on their toes. The most amazing feat here is simply how he manages to pack so much into each battle sequence, perfectly choreographing each detailed battle with visual eye candy in all directions.
Part of the reason Centurion is so entertaining is how taut Marshall's storytelling is. Where a Scott (Ridley or Tony), Spielberg or Mann behind the lens would never consider turning in an edit of any period piece shorter than 150 minutes, Centurion is a brisk, adrenaline-infused 97 minutes. Marshall minimizes the moments of calm to keep the intensity high, which may at times result in slightly less developed characters or an arguably thinner storyline, but he also manages to make this historically tinged tale wildly entertaining for a new generation of ever-shorter attention spans.
All the while, Marshall still manages to craft some truly memorable characters among the endless chaos. Dominic West, as Virilus, scores his best feature role to date, a battle-worn man's man with a sense of humor. As a huge fan of The Wire, I've been saying for a while now that West should be a star, and Marshall really explores his potential. West's to-the-death standoff with the ruthless female Pict warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is one of the movie's highlights. Kurylenko, a supermodel who sheds every bit of girliness to dig deep into the fearless, unstoppable Etain, is one of the great screen villains of recent time, male or female. 90 pounds or not, if this chick charged you with sword in air, you'd be running too.
Led by Fassbender, the Romans of the Ninth Legion are raging balls of testosterone, warts and all. They are fearless and ruthless, covered in scars and driven only by their loyalty to Rome. Sure, 300 was a nice visual treat, but the gritty, sweaty brutality of these centurions makes the action feel more realistic and jarring, even in the context of a flick more concerned with entertainment value than history lessons.
What Neil Marshall has delivered with Centurion is a sort of B-movie Roman battle flick of olden times, albeit with a level of violence that is nothing if not modern and groundbreaking. It's not for the faint of heart and probably not for those looking to learn something. But action aficionados are gonna love it.