By Armond White
Why make a genre movie—any movie, really—without inspiration? Neil Marshall, the director of the horror film The Descent, now comes up with another late genre entry: his imagination evident in the redundant antiquity battle tale’s title, Centurion. Shadowed by Zack Snyder’s fascinating 300, Marshall adds nothing new to the basic plot, least of all the kind of genre delight Snyder evidenced and not the revisionist intelligence behind Walter Hill’s 1979 neo-gladiator movie The Warriors.
OK, Centurion isn’t a slog like Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. There’s almost authenticity in this vision of Euro history, especially through Sam McCurdy’s dense cinematography layering darkness and mist—the overloaded atmosphere creates an almost original look. But everything else is hackneyed: even Michael Fassbender packing on pecs, abs and scowl to play Quintus Dias, the Roman soldier in 117 A.D. assigned to fight the Picts, the vicious primitive Celtic tribe.
Committed to exploitation-movie horror, Marshall heaps on the battle scenes, piling up carcasses as Dias defends his commander General Titus Virilus (Dominic West, whose doomed role gives him the chance to out-emote Fassbender) and leads his Ninth Legion army back home. These good actors don’t perfect warrior iconography like Gerard Butler in 300, partly because they’re less feverishly imagined. The script limits them to gruff Brit locutions and anachronistic vernacular (“Put the fucking knife down!”). Dias’ primary foe is a mute feral female, Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a vengeful, painted-face warrior. Action flicks have no cooler device than a woman scorned. Etain’s just a wraith with weaponry. “Her soul is an empty vessel, only Roman blood can fill it.” But Marshall hasn’t learned his Walter Hill lesson to make a woman as compelling as a man. Etain is merely relentless.
That’s also how Marshall directs the redundant action scenes. Whether battlefield skirmishes or forest ambushes, they’re all the same unmeasured mayhem. New rule: Only one decapitation per ancient action movie. It used to be a sign of the boldest battle film to show a head rolling off a soldier’s neck, through the air and across the screen. After Marshall and his F/X team throw in the second decapitation (with more to come), they’re not special anymore. This could be an offshoot of video-game excess, or it could just mean that Neil Marshall is mindless.
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