Neil Marshall first found his way onto my television screen with 2005′s, The Descent. This is most likely the case for many others, as the film came out of nowhere for many who had not seen his earlier werewolf/war film Dog Soldiers. Many film sites and writers heralded Marshall’s entries in the horror-suspense genre with well deserved enthusiasm. Even though I own the DVD of The Descent, I have not gone back to re-watch the film purely based on how terrified I was the first time I watched it. I absolutely loved it, it presented sympathetic characters in a claustrophobic, other-worldly environment, forced to defend themselves against an unseen terror. The someone secret screening of Neil Marshall’s latest film at SXSW, Centurion, has helped cement Marshall in my own world of directors who can continue to produce genre films which I will happily consume.
While at Scott Weinberg’s panel with various genre directors, many hints were dropped about Marshall’s latest film, and a secret screening taking place later that week at the Alamo Drafthouse. Centurion was certainly not on any official schedule at the festival, but it was hard to not know about this screening, as the theater was full of film geeks that Monday at midnight, for the world premiere of the movie. Neil Marshall was in the theater, with just about every other film writer in town, eagerly awaiting what would be shown to us. We were not disappointed.
Centurion’s story is simple, the Roman Ninth Legion, in it’s campaign against the Picts of Scotland in 117 of the common era. Dominic West (of The Wire) plays Titus Virilus, charged with leading his legion into the north, to wipe out the Picts who have long stood up to the Roman Empire. We are quickly introduced to another Roman soldier, Quintas Dias, played heroically by Michael Fassbender (of Hunger, Fish Tank, and Inglourious Basterds), who has survived an attack by the Picts on his outpost, and in his escape, he encounters the Ninth Legion, on their way back from where he has just fled. The Ninth Legion is quickly, and almost unbelievably, dispatched by a surprise attack from the Picts, and they are then forced to make their way back to Roman-occupied territory, as they are tracked and killed by the Picts. Simple enough plot, get home before you are killed by the people you were charged with invading.
Will Quintas Dias make it back before he and his men are killed? Who exactly are we meant to cheer for in this film? We surely are meant to sympathize with our lead male characters, as they represent the civilized world. We are also introduced to the suffering, and horrible torture that the Picts have endured under the Roman invasion. As in real life, we are not meant to cheer for either side. Both commit horrible acts upon their enemies, out of survival, or revenge. What we are meant to feel, is the sense of adventure, of never feeling safe as long as you’re standing still. You need to keep moving if you want to survive the night. You’re in enemy territory, and they know every rock and blade of grass better than you do.
Neil Marshall’s Centurion is a run for your life, action film that knows exactly what it want’s to be. It slides in subtle messages about war crimes, atrocities, terrorism, guerilla warfare, while never clubbing you over the head and shoving them down your throat. It has grim elements, but moves along at such a pace as to never leave you over-analyzing their effectiveness. By the time you’re realizing that you’ve just seen a Pict version of an IED, you’re racing alongside the hero’s that you’re invested in. While they do introduce a few too many characters without giving you time to differentiate them from the others in the group (a huge problem with the recent Clash of the Titans). There are moments and characters in the film that might have deserved the editors scissors be taken to their scenes, as they tended to slow down the pacing without adding much in terms of character growth or tension. I can whole-heartedly recommend this film to anyone who has enjoyed films like Braveheart, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, or 300. While Centurion may not have some of the timeless and epic themes found in those other films, it carves out a place for itself at the historical action genre table, and definitely has earned the right to it’s spoils. I cannot wait to see the film again, and own it on Blu-ray.
To hear me discuss Centurion with Rudie, James, and Travis, check out the bonus episode that we recorded, discussing all of the films I saw at SXSW.