Film Review: Centurion

Neil Marshall reaffirms his status as a contemporary “King of the B’s” with another straight-up genre flick that’s low on budget but high on fun.

It’s an understandable, but unfortunate, reality of the movie business that directors of A-list prestige projects grab the majority of our attention and acclaim, while those that spend most of their careers churning out B-movies—a somewhat outdated catch-all term used to describe low-budget genre pictures—often have to wait decades to be similarly appreciated. It’s only within the past 20 years, for example, that wizened genre masters like George A. Romero and Roger Corman have been widely celebrated for their skill and craft, with the latter even picking up an honorary Oscar at a star-studded Academy ceremony last fall.

Going by that math, sometime around the year 2030, British filmmaker Neil Marshall will at last be honored in some venue, be it a special industry gala or a week-long retrospective at one of the few remaining repertory movie houses. The recognition will be long overdue. Since his 2002 debut Dog Soldiers, Marshall has consistently proven himself to be one of the most reliable contemporary creators of kick-ass genre flicks around. 2005’s The Descent was an exceptionally well-crafted horror film, while the 2008 post-apocalyptic adventure Doomsday played like a gleefully wild mash-up of John Carpenter and George Miller.

Marshall’s latest effort, Centurion, fuses elements of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator with the Rambo series, telling the story of a Roman soldier dropped behind enemy lines and forced to survive with only his wits and superior fighting skills. In a terrific star turn, Michael Fassbender plays the titular centurion Quintus, one of a handful of enlisted men posted to a remote fort in northern Britain circa 117 A.D. Their assignment is to defend the Roman Empire’s tenuous border against the guerrilla-style tactics of the Picts, the fierce Celtic tribes that refuse to submit to foreign rule. Inevitably, the fort is overrun and Quintus taken prisoner, but he pulls off the first of many daring escapes and meets up with another Roman legion led by General Virilus (Dominic West), which is marching north to take the fight to the Picts. Too bad for them that their supposedly loyal guide Etain (ex-Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) is secretly working with the enemy and leads the soldiers into a trap from which few emerge alive. Following this massacre, Quintus spearheads a mission to rescue the captured Virilus and lead his small band of brothers back across the border before they too lose their heads to a Pict-axe.

The secret to Marshall’s success as a B-movie maestro is that he always takes the material seriously without making films that are overly serious. Like The Descent and Doomsday before it, Centurion is played straight—there are no Scream-like genre in-jokes and none of the actors can be caught winking at the camera. And yet the movie possesses a lively, almost lighthearted spirit that makes it a great deal of fun to watch. Narrative clichés that would be groan-inducing in another, more self-important period epic—like, say, this summer’s Robin Hood—largely roll off the viewer’s back here because they are delivered with an earnest enthusiasm by the writer-director and his game cast. (Indeed, Fassbender is so charismatic in the lead role, it’s a shame he wasn’t picked to play England’s most famous outlaw over the increasingly humorless Russell Crowe.)

Granted, Marshall isn’t quite as adept at shooting action sequences as Scott or even Miller, but he gooses the proceedings with some agreeably outlandish bits of bloodshed and a relentless pace. And in a classic genre movie tradition that’s perhaps best typified by Romero’s zombie pictures, he’s even worked a measure of social commentary into the film. It certainly doesn’t require that much of a leap to view the Picts as stand-ins for the homegrown insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the Roman soldiers represent the in-over-their-heads U.S. and/or U.K. troops. (At one point, Quintus even refers to the conflict as a “new kind of war…[one] without end,” echoing, among other things, the title of Charles Ferguson’s acclaimed Iraq War documentary No End in Sight.) It may not be A-level art, but Centurion provides all the entertainment value you expect from a solid B-movie.