Directed by Neil Marshall
The opening titles of Centurion, rushing at the camera in a brown and gold font seemingly ripped out of a 90s CD-ROM game, set against a vast winter landscape that somehow fails to impress, have the bizarre effect of looking cheesy while still reminding the viewer that they could have looked really badass. It's a fitting metaphor for the rest of the picture.
Situating itself somewhere between war buddy movies like The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds and the recent spate of classics-era combat epics (300, Clash of the Titans), Centurion is not lacking in formula. Following a genre map to the endpoint of audience satisfaction is hardly to be frowned upon a priori, and is understandable when that film's budget (in this case, approximately $15 million) climbs far higher than those of its stars' (Michael Fassbender, Dominic West) previous leading-man efforts. Yet like its opening credits, Centurion proper fails to do much with the genre resources that it has been given by—or rather, has taken from—other, better movies.
The film is set in 117 AD, the peak of the Roman Empire. The Romans did pretty well for themselves, it turns out. However, they are coming up against a strong guerilla opposition in northern Britain, from a bunch of savage locals known as the Picts. Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who survives a Pict raid in the opening sequence, winds up leading a band of Roman soldiers who survived a Pict massacre deeper into enemy territory, in order to save their captured General Virilus (Dominic West). As one can imagine, bonding, arguing, and combat all ensue in good measure.
There isn't much of a secret to Centurion's lack of appeal. Simply put, the film is not particularly well written. These war buddy movies typically thrive off of a certain dark wit which seems to fit naturally against the perpetual threat of imminent death (think of the semi-comparable, and far superior, Lebanon, and that story about Shmulik's teacher!). Yet the laughs in Centurion are few and far between, if they come at all. Without any seriously compelling dialogue or conflict between characters, the film's emotional dynamics remain as flat and predictable as a piece of cardboard. Characters are often provided with one reveal, typically contrived (the good soldier who turns out to be Bad, as the formula dictates, etc.). Even Fassbender, already one of the most exciting actors in cinema today, can only do so much to flesh out Centurion. Sure he's brave, dashing, and so on, but the compelling personal details simply aren't there in the writing.
Centurion was written and directed by Neil Marshall, who made horror hit The Descent. Writing may not be his strong suit, but, well, directing isn't exactly his forte either. Marshall shoots his action in the contemporary-classics mode, with a fast shutter speed that makes the slightly sped-up action appear cartoonish. While this is sometimes an effective technique, Centurion leads one to question whether this fad is losing its charm, or if Marshall simply didn't employ it well. Either way, the action sequences end up being the dullest in the film, as the fight choreography goes through the redundant motions from one battle to the next. How many times can you see someone get axed in the head before yawns commence? Additionally, Marshall makes the mistake of having bright-red blood spurt out of the wounds of killed combatants, a sort of directorial signature that just looks silly against the film's dark and dismal palette.
The one bright spot in Centurion, as mentioned earlier, is Fassbender. After kicking around TV for seven years, he finally made his presence felt as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Hunger. The six-foot-tall actor dropped down to a truly emaciated 127 pounds to play the role of the hunger-striking prisoner. Few performances, if any, come to mind that have displayed greater commitment. Between that and the way he showcased Sands' brutal, quiet determination in a 22-minute conversation in the middle of the film, which included a 17-minute take, it was obvious that this actor had a combination of drive and skill rarely seen in performers today. After giving the most entertaining performance in Inglourious Basterds ("Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's"), he carried Andrea Arnold's otherwise average Fish Tank, and earned an extra gold star from the Times' Manohla Dargis for his performance in Jonah Hex, of all things. With big roles in the next films from David Cronenberg and Steven Soderbergh forthcoming (as well as playing the villain in X-Men: First Class), it's obvious he's destined for very big things. Clearly an artist in his own right, there's no question that his success is our good fortune.
Opens August 27