Fearless Roman soldiers take on fierce guerrilla warriors in Centurion, director Neil Marshall's brutal and exciting historical action adventure. With sweeping camerawork that gives the action an appropriately majestic scope, inventive battle scenes that don't sacrifice coherence for style, and tough characters that aren't just cardboard cutouts, it's got all of the elements that make a Marshall film great, wrapped up in an original story that remains fresh and exciting despite its familiar trappings. In short, Centurion is everything that Marcus Nispel's Pathfinder wanted to be, but executed by a filmmaker with genuine talent for storytelling.
The year is A.D. 117. Despite the growing strength of the Roman Empire, a fierce tribe known as the Picts has prevented Hadrian's armies from conquering northern Britain. The Picts offer a devastating display of their guerrilla power when they raid a Roman frontier fort, and Quintus (Michael Fassbender) just barely manages to escape with his life. Thirsting for revenge, Quintus joins General Virilus' Ninth Legion as the squadron begins traveling north on a mission to find and kill Gorlacon, the leader of the Picts. That mission is complicated when the Picts ambush the Ninth Legion and capture General Virilus, leaving his men stranded behind enemy lines. Now, as Quintus and the surviving members of the Ninth Legion are hunted from the shadows, they prepare to make one last desperate bid to save General Virilus and reach the Roman frontier before being captured or killed by the Picts.
With Centurion, Marshall brings all of the elements that his fans have come to expect from the director -- tough-as-nails characters, bloody action, stylized visuals, and impossible odds -- together in a way that helps to instill a familiar story with a sense of urgency and originality. Whereas Marshall's previous film, Doomsday, was essentially a hybridized remake of Escape from New York and The Road Warrior, Centurion doesn't wear its influences so readily on its sleeve, and for that reason it's the director's own abilities -- not his influences -- that help to distinguish and define the film. Likewise, by setting the movie against the backdrop of an ongoing war that's hit a stalemate, and pitting the more traditional Roman army against a breed of warriors who don't abide by the accepted rules of combat, Marshall draws some interesting parallels between that conflict and a certain quagmire in the Middle East that will prove especially tantalizing to history buffs. Like the very best genre filmmakers, he's got more on his mind than making our pulses race.
But, fortunately for his audience, Marshall hasn't gone entirely political; it's obvious that his primary goal with Centurion is to entertain, and in typical fashion he accomplishes that goal with energy to spare. Not only is Centurion a gorgeous film to look at, it's constantly chugging forward at a pace that keeps us involved with the story while we anticipate the next big action scene -- which is never too far off. Anyone familiar with Marshall's filmography knows he's a writer with a knack for creating strong, swaggering characters, and with Centurion he continues that tradition by not only playing up the macho camaraderie of the Roman soldiers, but also pitting them against a fierce female huntress who is easily their equal on the battlefield. And despite her striking similarities to a certain tribally tattooed cannibal from Doomsday, Olga Kurylenko gives the taciturn character of Etain an added dimension thanks to a thematically rich scene that not only reveals the source of her stoic rage, but simultaneously articulates the ambiguity of war by putting it into a personal context. Likewise, Kurylenko's unchecked vengeance provides an ideal contrast to Fassbender's dutiful, honor-bound soldier, resulting in a unique dynamic that helps to distinguish Centurion from the glut of other period adventures.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Centurion, however, is the fact that just when we think we've got it all figured out, Marshall plays a wild card that sends the story careening off-course from the mental map we've laid out in our heads. And even though his sudden change of direction doesn't elevate the film into groundbreaking territory, it does show that a pinch of unpredictability can go a long way in maintaining an air of freshness, and reminds us why Marshall remains one of the few genre directors with the ability to package influence and innovation into a product that feels more like a natural evolution of film, rather than an inferior rehash of familiar ideas.