I’m not a big fan of Sword and Sandal epics. That’s not to say I hate them; they just don’t register on my radar. Too many plots for the runtime and no real character development to speak of. It’s all a bunch of costumes and ornate set pieces that leave me wishing there had actually been a movie within. So, it stands to reason that I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in to Neil Marshall’s Centurion. I dug the hell out of his horror film The Descent, but felt very disappointed with his post-apocalpytic snore Doomsday. Seriously, you can’t achieve much in the way of post-apocalyptic gobbledegook if you don’t have Milla Jovovich as your protagonist. But I digress. I went into Centurion unsure of what to expect and in turn was quite surprised.
“This is neither the beginning, nor the end.” Where Centurion sets itself apart from other Sword and Sandal epics is in the pacing. This film is tidy. We start on the main character, Quintas Dias, running for his life. From there we’re taken on a chase spanning the continent and before we know it the credits are rolling. Even in the film’s slower first act, there’s relatively little breathing room. Despite all of this, the film manages to develop it’s characters and throw in the lavish scenery that you would expect from this genre of film.
The performances overall are top notch. Michael Fassbender (of Inglourious Basterds and 300 fame) stands out as Dias, the rather flawed main character. Fassbender plays the role with the right amount of humility and as a result we identify with the character a lot more than if he had been some speech-giving alpha-warrior. I find it interesting that this character is the better survivalist in the film than even the more seasoned generals.
Olga Kurylenko, who you might remember recently from Quantum of Solace, is well-cast as the antagonist of the film Etain. She could have easily played the “woman in a man’s world” archetype that seems to be the default in these films (*cough* Keira Knightley in King Arthur and Pirates *cough*). Instead, Olga gives Etain depth and there were moments where I truly felt for the character’s struggle. There’s a scene in particular where she slays an enemy with a rather frightful fury. Kurylenko fuses the tragedy of her character and the catharsis of the kill define her and it’s in that moment we realize there’s more to her than just the Mila Kunis pout. By the end of the film, I’m not entirely sure if I’m rooting for the right person.
Perhaps the only blight on the casting for this film is Noel Clarke, who doesn’t offer anything worthwhile to his role as Macros. From moment one onscreen to the last, I could only see Mickey Smith. But that’s a relatively small complaint considering that the role fits the story well enough and that everyone else’s performances more than make up for it.
This film, given it’s smaller scale and tidy pacing, is shot as well as any film in this genre. Props to the cinematographer and location scouts for bringing the lush scenery to life and drawing us into the story even further. There were a few times where I was reminded of Gladiator and in those moments I felt like this film did comparable if not better. One scene in particular involved a rather gruesome ambush. Just the setup for it (which you can see in the image below) is impressive and gives you an idea of the overall scope of this war.
That’s not to say the film is without it’s flaws. Some of the dialog in the film comes across really cheesy and took me out on more than one occasion. The aforementioned casting of Mickey Smith also took me out and weakened some of the drama that the subplot involved. Some of the makeup and costuming work fell flat in the beginning, and the use of CG blood throughout was just a wee bit distracting. The love story, which is thankfully understated in this film, still feels a little out of place. Thankfully, there’s not a lot of screen time devoted to the love story and thankfully it plays out realistically enough to be believable.
Despite all of that, Centurion is a very strong film and one that’s worth the ticket price. If you get a chance to see this film, do so. Even if you only feel “meh” about this genre like myself, you’ll find something in this film to like and you’ll at least be entertained.