If there’s one thing complimentary thing you can say about Neil Marshall’s Centurion, it’s that it avoids the kind of glaring outrageousness that made Doomsday into a joke. However, it’s still nowhere near the brilliance of The Descent; and even Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, where he attempted to pack as much creativity into his low-budgeted debut as possible, was a better film overall. And still, for all of the many problems of Doomsday, at least that film was often entertaining and fun. Here Marshall, in a seeming bid for some kind of legitimacy, has crafted a relatively boring, tepid affair that still isn’t without its problems.
A fairly solid cast is led by Michael Fassbender, as the film’s centurion protagonist, and Dominic West playing the Roman General; and they do all they can with the material. Both Liam Cunningham and David Morrissey give honest and dependable performances as surviving members of the Roman Ninth Legion. Olga Kurylenko, as the Pict tracker, is everything Marshall seems to have envisioned of the character. In fact, the acting is the strongest thing Centurion has going for it. Much of the problem is that Marshall is essentially a fetishist. It’s quite obvious that the most important details to him are the Picts’ costume and make-up, and the variety of ways he can splice or skewer a head. There’s a battle scene about a third of the way through the film that finds Marshall in his element, and he nails it. But for most of the film Marshall exercises restraint rather than letting loose his inner crazed, genre madman.
So whenever he’s not splicing or skewering heads, he’s created something fairly lifeless. The characterization is minimal and the dialogue is spare, leaving just the narrative to carry the film; but there are too many instances where an advancement in plot happens illogically, where information is revealed or a character does something rash for what only seems to be plot contrivance. And when the plot isn’t suffering these occasional forced forward-pushes, it’s quite simplistic and threadbare. Even the cinematography has issues. Some scenes are so blue they seem to have been color-adjusted for the sake of stylization; other scenes are dark and under-lit and the characters appear almost fuzzy or slightly out of focus.
Marshall’s cause would surely be helped if there was a point to all of his war-torn bloodletting, but he seems to actively resist courting a theme of any kind. There are certain elements present that could have been developed into something compelling, or at least used to give the film a purpose. There’s the loyalty and brotherhood between soldiers, as well as society vs. the outcast. However, Marshall never pursues any of these opportunities to build them into something that would actually give his film meaning. They’re just a few dangling hangers in an otherwise empty coat closet. And if Marshall’s only real goal is to make simple escapism and purposeless entertainment, he’d be much better off showing less restraint and showcasing his pure creativity. That’s probably his greatest gift as a filmmaker, and in Centurion it’s a source that goes virtually untouched.