Self-seriousness can mortally wound the work of a pulp filmmaker who depends on his flashy style. In the case of British director Neil Marshall, obvious political and moral posturing has begun to replace genuine thrills and excitement. From the hilariously absurd werewolves vs. commandos romp Dog Soldiers, to the dank, cavernous The Descent, Marshall has plummeted, creatively, to the ill-fated apocalypse/medieval hybrid Doomsday, and now to his latest project, the brutal Roman-battle movie Centurion. The latter two films suffer from a similar gross negligence: they take simple and potentially effective men- (or women-)on-a-mission scenarios and spin them into messy, inane, and bloated arrays of epic-film cliché.
Marshall has a talent for creating taut, almost claustrophobic set pieces where desperation becomes confined by spatial limitations. His characters are forced into terrible situations by chance, pushed to the limits of sanity in order to achieve retribution. There is no other plausible escape from the farm in Dog Soldiers or the labyrinth of caves of The Descent, which force Marshall into addressing the complexities of action vis-a-vis the supernatural threats at hand. With Doomsday and Centurion, Marshall’s focus scatters to the wind, highlighting strange narrative tangents and visual flights of fancy devoid of any emotional weight.
Centurion begins with an imposing opening credit sequence that juxtaposes one epic aerial shot after another before resting on a lone Roman soldier running down an icy mountainside bound and shirtless. A terribly unnecessary use of voice-over allows Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) to recount his tale; after surviving a siege on a Roman garrison by the native Picts and escaping their primitive confines, the soldier evades capture despite being brutally beaten and tortured. “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my journey,” Quintas muses, spelling out Marshall’s simplistic imagining of history as a gap-riddled timeline. During his escape, Quintas inadvertently gets recruited by the invading Ninth Legion, a best-of-the-best unit led by General Titus Virilus (Dominic West), and becomes further embroiled in the bitter battle with the natives. From here, Centurion descends into a prolonged mixture of chase sequences and frenetic action scenes, with Quintas and the six surviving members of the legion chased by an especially deadly group of Picts.
In a short amount of time, repetition begins to take its toll on both the script and the performances, turning Centurion into a lame-duck adventure lacking tension or surprise. The potentially incredible lost story of the Ninth Legion becomes a simplistic surface-level fable for easy consumption. It doesn’t help that Marshall boils the complex political and military situation down to a collage of tired notions about brotherhood and purpose, using Quintas’s physical and interior torment as an analogy for the Roman Empire’s futile attempts to invade and conquer primitive Northern England. When the soldiers get picked off one by one, often sacrificing themselves for the good of the group, their deaths magnify the complete lack of investment the audience feels for their situation. Centurion becomes just another stab at historical revisionism, a feeble attempt at connecting past military debacles with those of the present. Despite the talented cast and Marshall’s occasional flare for gruesome hand-to-hand combat, the film wrestles itself free of narrative logic.
What’s worse, the action scenes lack coherence; the editing focuses almost entirely on penetrating arrows, piercing hatchets, and stabbing swords. The shoddy CGI only further disconnects the viewer from the ground-level carnage. Poor pacing doesn’t help either, and is surprising considering Marshall’s anarchic sense of comedic rhythm in Dog Soldiers and diabolical sense of aesthetic restraint in The Descent. Worst of all, Centurion holds no surprises, making Quintas’s bloody journey one of emotional indifference and visual monotony. For a filmmaker as talented as Marshall, these are unforgivable offenses.
Centurion concludes its military quagmire with the betrayal of the common man by an uncaring Roman governor, one final vindication of the everyday soldier and a blasphemous indictment of the ruling elite. But it’s a critique rendered moot by Marshall’s uninspired filmmaking and complete lack of vision. As Marshall guides Quintas’s once deadly sword into the history books, he reduces sacrifice, death, and redemption to an elementary level, a shoddy and skimmed-over historical lesson devoid of the kind of analysis it deserves.