Set in the year 117; a time when the Roman empire encompassed the deserts of North Africa, and almost all of mainland Europe; Centurion endeavors to tell the story of what happen to Rome’s infamous Ninth Legion; who many believe went missing in Britain that same year.
It was the time when Roman rule over Britain was not certain, and the Roman Army was facing fierce resistance in Scotland, the likes of which they had never faced before; as the Scots (technically the Picts back then) were not only extremely passionate about holding onto their precious country, but brutal and experienced fighters that were willing to go to any lengths to secure victory; including using guerilla tactics, that had rarely (if ever) been used to wage war before then.
These new tactics, and the overall savagery of the Picts scared the Romans, who were at first stubborn and steadfast in their resolve to take the country, and lost many thousand men in their efforts to do so; among them were the famed Ninth Legion (whose disappearance many scholars believed happened in Scotland), and although their fate will never truly be known, Centurion is Neil Marshall’s (Doomsday) account of what may have happened.
It follows a Centurion (Roman solider) named Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender, Inglorious Basterds) who was taken prisoner by the Picts (after remaining the sole survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman garrison he was defending) but manages to escape and link up with the Ninth Legion; who have been sent to defend the frontier.
The legion; which is led by an experienced General named Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West, The Wire), who is much loved by his men, and doesn’t want to see them put in harms way unnecessarily; is then led into the heart of Pict country by a Pictish scout named Etain (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), where they ambushed, and almost entirely wiped out in the ensuing slaughter.
The survivors (which consist of Quintas, and a small band of regular soldiers) are then abundantly aware that they are stranded deep behind enemy lines, and certain to be butchered should they be spotted by the patrolling Picts, but decide to venture further into the heart of Scotland, in order to rescue their General, who was taken prisoner during the attack.
The rest of the film then consists of watching the soldiers attempt to save their beloved General from the camp of the Pictish King, and then; when they are inevitably spotted by the Scots; seeing how they attempt to navigate the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the Scottish mainland, as they try and head to the safety of the south; where they will have the security of the Roman Army to protect them.
So at its core, Centurion is a rather simple chase film; as the small group of men that survived the initial attack then attempt to run to safety, whilst avoiding the Pictish patrols, and staying free of the violent huntress that stalks their every move; a tried and tested concept that can prove to be either very thrilling or very dull.
And while Centurion isn’t a terrible movie, it sways more into the latter category; as the general concept of trying to escape some extremely violent and capable pursuers as you navigate through terrain that is both harsh and unfamiliar, is a solid one, but one that has been done many times over, and unfortunately Centurion seems to add little creativity or originality into the mix; settling for producing a fairly average, by-the-book, chase film that serves to create a rather monotone movie; as there are no ups, and no downs, just a fairly glum rambling through the Scottish countryside, with little point, and never any rest-bite or character moments used to break up the monotony of the long walk home.
And it’s the character moments (or rather the lack of) that really let Centurion down, because it has a cast that is more than capable of delivering on that front; Michael Fassbender is possibly the single best thing about the movie (depending on your preference for bloodlust; as the action can get pretty fierce), and showed with his performance in Inglorious Basterds that he can more than deliver well written dialogue, as can Dominic West, who excelled in such moments with his portrayal of Jimmy McNulty in HBO’s the Wire; but here neither man, or any of the supporting cast are given the chance to flesh out their characters, and as a result they don’t seem like fully developed people, and as such it’s very hard to care if they live or die.
However, just because the characters aren’t fully developed, and it’s hard to get behind them, that isn’t to say Centurion is a boring film, because what it lacks in dialogue and heart, it makes up for with a simple enough plot, and plenty of ferocious action that’s constantly growing in it’s barbarity, easy to follow, and often downright nasty; all positive things for most fans of fairly low-budget action movies.
And yet, despite having only a £10 million budget (which is a mere pittance compared with most major Hollywood blockbusters, as even the upcoming animated terminator picture is due to cost $70 million), Centurion’s production values actually appear quite high; and it looks more like a low-to-mid-budget, American made, action movie, rather than the usual overly budget conscious films produced by the British film industry; having some very solid looking effects, some decent battle sequences, and a number of shots that are decidedly Lord of the Rings-like (the long-shots showing the soldiers running across the landscape look like they were taken exactly from Peter Jackson’s playbook).
So while Centurion might not be the most original affair to ever come out of British filmmaking; utilizing a basic and simple chase formula to which it adds nothing original, and padding it with characters that aren’t fully developed, and that nobody cares about; it’s still a good watch, as it’s got a great cast, that perform just about as well as the script allows, some truly ruthless action, and a decent concept that attempts to explain a mystery that historians have failed to solve; making it a good effort overall, and a good example of a British action movie that makes for an easy way to while away a couple of hours.
Not unlike the film itself, Centurion’s video quality is suitably strong, but not without it’s problems; colour representation is both strong and naturalistic, and served with excellent contrast levels that do a great job of showcasing the film’s mainly earthy tones, and the massive amount of deep red blood that gets spilled throughout (and can often appear overdone) and comes as a welcome change to the blue/grey hue that seems to cover the majority of the movie, accentuating the bitter cold of the Scottish terrain.
Fleshtones also appear fairly naturalistic and accurate, and the deep blacks look excellent for the most part (especially considering how a good deal of the film takes place in relative darkness), but despite it’s merits, and the general lack of transfer errors, it’s the consistent mid-level grain which somewhat hampers the disc’s picture quality; as it can often obscure some details which really should be present, and while the detail on the whole is still fairly high, and much more than passable, it’s definitely not the sharpest example that can be seen on a modern DVD.
Overall the picture quality is fairly solid; as it has no real issues to speak of, but suffers from a general lack of sparkle, and a good, but still less than stellar, level of detail; which is sure to be of a high enough standard to please its fans, and bodes very well for the Blu-ray release.
More low key however is the film’s audio track (a Dolby Digital 5.1 track) which delivers perfectly crisp and clear dialogue throughout, but fails to utilize the rear channels for the majority of the picture, as they stay mostly silent in all but the battle scenes; scenes where they really come alive with clanging metal, screaming soldiers, and spattering blood, and sound loud and wide-ranging enough to satisfy fans of similarly budgeted action movies, but not precise enough to thrill more hardened audiophiles.
Bass levels are also suitable, but unlikely to really stun any listener, yet combine with the overall effects, and the well reproduced dialogue, to create an audio experience that may not wow too many listeners, but serves the film well enough, and does a good job of reproducing the sound so as to satisfy its fans.
Possibly the strongest element of the disc however, is Centurion’s special features which consist of several outtakes; that are poorly cut together, but do contain a few laughs when watching the cast mess about, and falling over in the snow; several deleted scenes; which come with optional commentary by director Neil Marshall, and were rightfully cut, but still provide an interesting watch; and a making of featurette; that contains the usual behind the scenes footage, and interviews with majors players from the cast and crew, and discusses everything from the legend of the Ninth Legion and the development of the story, to the film’s gore, and plenty of historical facts that affected the film; making it a surprisingly interesting and informative watch.
There’s also an audio commentary (featuring Neil Marshall, and a couple of the film’s designers); which explains everything from how the title sequence came about, and where certain sequences were shot, to forced script edits (the reason for the lack of proper character development), things that they would have changed if they were releasing the film again, and things that hampered production (including nesting birds forcing production onto a Ministry of Defence own patch of land where sporadic gunfire could be heard from just over the ridge), and is an excellent and informative listen that’s extremely easy to listen to (because of how well the guys gel together), littered with fun facts and production stories, and proves for an entertaining commentary that should satisfy casual listeners just as easily as the movie’s die-hard fans.
Rounding off the collection is a photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and a production design gallery, that combine with the excellent commentary, interesting deleted scenes, and surprisingly engaging making of featurette (as well as the other features), to create a selection of bonus materials that are compelling, informative, well made, and do just about as good a job as they possible could to entertain and inform anyone who wishes to delve a little deeper into Centurion’s production.
The Bottom Line:
In the end, Centurion isn’t quite the British equivalent of Gladiator; lacking the budget, emotion, and character development of that film; but it was an ambitious effort from Neil Marshall, that actually manages to succeed on most counts; as whilst it may have its issues, and would have done a good deal better to engage with audiences had it had some more fully developed characters, it’s got the feel of a film that will be much more lasting than the majority of low-budget throwaway action movies that are released nowadays (it’s certainly miles better than Universal Soldier: Regeneration), relishes in the fact that it had a superb cast, some great effects, and plenty of hard-hitting gritty action.
The picture and audio quality on the DVD aren’t exactly reference quality; although they’re not too far off, and are not only perfectly serviceable, but suggest that the Blu-ray release should be nothing short of stunning; and when coupled with the disc’s fantastic selection of special features, make for a disc that does a great job of showcasing its material, and not only satisfying, but entertaining its fans.
Centurion is a low-budget action movie that’s driven not by its predictable plot, but its stellar cast, and shockingly brutal action; and while it’s true that you could doze off for half an hour and still know exactly what’s happening, it’s fast paced enough to stay interesting; and actually feels (not unlike the Roman soldiers in the film) like it’s a film that’s punching well above its weight, and easily managing to go the distance.
If you’re an action fan, crave plenty of blood and a whole lot of gore, and like a film that’s easy to get behind, doesn’t require too much thinking, and infuses an interesting historical legend with a stellar cast, some good direction, and plenty of life-threatening carnage, then you’re sure to get plenty out of Centurion; it may not have the fun factor of The Expendables, but it’s a great effort from Neil Marshall, and makes for a solid DVD purchase.