One would think that a swords-and-sandals film like Centurion would signal a radical departure for Neil Marshall, but upon closer inspection, the director’s latest film is very much in step with his previous output. Sure, it’s a period piece, with Romans and Picts duking it out in the highlands of Britannia, but, at its core, it’s essentially the same simple-yet-effective formula Marshall’s employed in all of his films. Like Dog Soldiers and Doomsday before it, Centurion focuses on a small-yet-determined band of heroes fighting to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds, and, while there are no monsters or mutants at play here, it’s every bit as gleefully bloody and brutal.
The film opens with a lone man racing across a snow-capped peak, hands bound, shirtless, and, seemingly, out of options. He is Centurion Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender), and this is neither the beginning nor the end of his story. We flashback to Quintas at an outpost in northern Britannia, where he and his men are ambushed by the relentless Picts, a guerilla force of Celtic tribesman who’ve exploited their knowledge of this rugged terrain to their advantage, and have dealt Caesar’s forces a major blow. Quintas’ men are killed, but he is spared and taken back to the Pict to be questioned by their leader, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomson).
Meanwhile, General Titus Virilus (Dominic West) is asked to lead his storied 9th Legion into a last-ditch effort against the Picts, aided by a mute Pict turncoat named Etain (Olga Kurylenko). While en route to their target, Virilus and his men rescue Quintas, who has just escaped the very village to which the 9th Legion is heading. It isn’t long before Etain reveals her true nature, however, and the 9th Legion are all but decimated by a Pict ambush that sees Virilus captured, and Quintas and a small group of survivors tasked with rescuing their general. The rescue doesn’t go as planned, however, and when Gorlacon’s young son dies in the attempt, the vengeful leader unleashes the equally bloodthirsty Etain, with orders to bring back the heads of every man responsible.
Centurion has more in common with the post-Conan b-grade sword and sorcery flicks of the 1980’s than the Gladiator-esque epics of recent years. It’s a mid-budget production bolstered by gorgeous photography, more-than-competent performances from its leads (especially the eminently likeable West and Fassbender as well as a surprisingly effective turn by the stunning Kurylenko who, despite her character being mute, speaks volumes with her eyes and mannerisms), and well-staged action set pieces that rival that of some of the genre’s best offerings. It’s not a particularly deep movie, and, to be honest, I never found myself particularly invested in any of the characters beyond Quintas and Etain, but, in terms of sheer guilty pleasures, Centurion is loaded with them. It’s astonishingly gory (although much of the gore is of the unconvincing CGI variety), occasionally quite funny, and, thanks to the presence of Kurylenko and uber-hottie, Imogen Poots (as the “witch”, Arienne), even a bit sexy. It’s also a movie I’ll probably forget in a matter of weeks, but that’s okay as I’ll be that much more inclined to watch it again.
The DVD from Magnolia Films is an impressive set, boasting a very nice 2.39:1 transfer. The image quality is striking for standard definition (albeit upscaled by my Blu-ray player), with solid detail and exceptional depth and clarity. The overall look of the film is fairly desaturated, but the blues of the Pict war paint and the crimson gore are very vibrant and jump off the screen. Blacks are deep and true, with no sign of digital crush, while a satisfying cinematic grain is present throughout. The 5.1 DTS audio track is well balanced, with robust bass and chiming highs. Directional effects are nicely implemented across the soundfield, with atmospheric sounds, like howling wind, crackling fires, and the crackling of brush underfoot coming across in a nicely organic fashion.
Extras abound in this set, with an entertaining and energetic commentary track by Marshall, director of photography, Sam McCurdy, production designer, Simon Bowles, and make-up FX artist, Paul Hyett. It’s a conversational track, loaded with information and behind-the-scenes tidbits, and compliments the included making-of featurette, Blood, Fire, and Fury quite nicely.
Other extras include several lengthy interviews with principal cast members as well as Marshall, deleted scenes, outtakes, a behind-the-scenes footage reel, and trailers for this and other Magnolia releases.
Centurion is an enormously entertaining flick cut from the same bloody cloth as Marshall’s debut feature, Dog Soldiers, brimming with the same sly sense of humor, relentless action, and machismo that make that movie such a fun and infinitely rewatchable experience. Viewers looking for the next Gladiator should keep on looking as Centurion is not nearly as epic or dramatic, but both gorehounds and action fiends will be more than entertained!