Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham
Watch Centurion online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes
Scotland’s tourist board must love Neil Marshall. In 2002, he butchered a group of men in the Highland woods with werewolves. Then a bunch of cave monsters tore some women to shreds in the Scottish mountains. And now, fascinated with Hadrian’s Wall, he’s back again in Scottish territory to butcher another group of men. But this time it’s different: they’re Romans.
Centurion focuses on the fate of the Ninth Legion – who, according to legend, disappeared without a trace in 117 AD. Filling the historical gap with blood, swords and more blood, Marshall’s imagined account see Quintus Dias (Fassbender) survive a raid by a savage native tribe called the Picts. He then joins with the Ninth to march north and wipe out the resistance. But as they travel through unfamiliar woods, the Picts wipe out the troops, taking General Virilius (West) as their prisoner. Quintus soon finds himself in a small band of survivors, determined to free the General and make it out from enemy lines alive.
With the silent and deadly tracker Etain (Kurylenko) on their heels, Centurion’s pretty much your standard chase film – there’s barely a moment when people aren’t running somewhere. Pausing briefly for an introductory fireside chat, Marshall’s camera steamrolls through Scottish landscapes, throwing arrows, spears, axes and knives at his resilient bunch of macho warriors.
The blokes acquit themselves well. Indeed, it’s telling that most of the cast (like their director) have gone on to become a lot more well-known. The charismatic Dominic West is a boisterous contrast to Fassbender’s steely hero, while the youngsters Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed get enough screen-time to claim as their own; Marshall veteran Liam Cunningham (also a Game of Thrones regular) is a reliably grizzly presence; and it’s a pleasure to see David Morrissey offered this kind of role (which led, perhaps, to The Walking Dead’s Governor). What are the soldiers’ names? You won’t remember. But that’s not really the point.
Staying loosely faithful to period weapons and clothing (woad is a must for their fictitious hunters), the production’s strength comes from old-school prosthetics, live-action stunts and low-budget scraps. With less money to play with, Marshall follows his mediocre blockbuster Doomsday with grit and fervour. It’s clearly influenced by Gladiator and its successors, but this historical epic sticks to the small scale, happy to replace Roman sand with Scottish mud. And yet it’s not without spectacle – the Picts’ early fiery ambush is a stunning little sequence. An attempt at a romantic subplot is a bum note, but the rest of Centurion is butt-clenchingly tense.
Sacrificing character for action, Centurion is a British B-Movie with balls. The result is a 90-minute dash to the bloody finish, but it feels closer to 60.
Centurion is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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