I must admit I had my doubts as soon as I heard the title. All films that feature Roman soldiers in any way are necessarily overlong, inaccurate predictable with laughable scripts where even soldiers of the lowest ranks speak in elliptical prose about honour in battle. They’ve all held the record for highest number of extras and usually culminate in a battle scene that only ever involves either two or two hundred thousand people. They are ‘epic’ in the worst possible way.
Thankfully, Centurion is not what it appears to be. This is, in fact, a very clever film and if I’d given proper thought to Neil Marshall’s back catalogue I would have realised I had nothing to worry about. Centurion’s structure is that of a chase movie superimposed onto a subject matter that usually yields an entirely different genre. As it turns out, turning the story of the unexplained disappearance of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army into a chase movie is inspired.
The story centres on the Romans’ increasing frustration with the Picts’ resistance to the expansion of their empire by defending what the Romans called Caledonia and Picts presumably called ‘ours’. The action really begins with the Romans’ decision to send the Ninth Legion north, lead by General Virilus (Dominic West), into “the arsehole of the world” to “wipe them from the face of the earth”. The manner in which this mission goes utterly tits up will not be unfamiliar to viewers. Think America in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan and of the current occupations of the latter and Iraq. Indeed the bumph tells us that the guerrilla tactics of the Picts have been the Romans’ undoing. Given that Virilus alludes to these tactics when he tells his men, “This is a new kind of war, without honour”, it is surprising that the Marshall’s Ninth march loudly into a dense forest in full tortoise formation armed with spears. It was never going to end well, and indeed it doesn’t.
The rest of the film is borne out of this enormous tactical error. Virilus’ capture necessitates his rescue which must necessarily be undertaken by the six sole survivors of the ambush, lead by Quintus (Michael Fassbender). Their sparse number turns them from legionnaires into accidental guerrillas, much more similar to and thus capable of challenging their enemy. Their efforts to rescue the General make Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen) and his Pict army very angry indeed. The chase, as they say, is on. However, it is not a battle of swords but of wits and tracking skills as the band of Roman brothers are pursued across the breathtakingly beautiful Scottish landscape, itself the only suitably epic element in what is otherwise a very concise, focussed and linear film.
Some ingredients gel less well than others however, for while the dialogue is refreshingly witty and, one suspects, quite realistic in the circumstances, the voiceover sounds like something from Lord of the Rings. Its profundity and high-minded pseudo-Shakespearian pronouncements don’t quite match the gritty realism of the action on the ground. Also, since the Pict’s incredible tracking skills are the main threat to the Romans’ escape one would have thought the latter wouldn’t leave helmets and dead animals around to mark their progress. Likewise the ease with which even the Romans are able to lose and find one another does seem rather extraordinary given the absence of satellites and GPS.
But such nitpickings are impossible to sustain in the face of the extreme(ly satisfying) violence and hand-wringing tension that builds to the dramatic climax necessitated by the chase. Like the dialogue, the fight scenes are also reminiscent of other, more modern genre. As in the Bourne Trilogy, every shot is a money shot, every swing a direct hit, and you are left reeling not only at the level of gore but at the fact that this is only rated 15.
One might say, therefore, that Centurion is a hit in more ways than one. None of its ingredients are new but the dish they create most certainly is, and the result is hugely enjoyable. Furthermore, despite the allusions to contemporary neo-imperialism and the failings thereof, it does not fall into the trap of becoming a buttock-numbingly overlong one-sided polemic against the West (I’m looking at you James Cameron. I want my 162 minutes back). Rather it is a variously tense, funny, violent, dark and gripping chase movie set against a stunning backdrop, with all-round convincing performances, particularly from Dominic West, Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey. It was 97 minutes I would happily relive and highly recommend.