UK 2010 Directed & Written by: Neil Marshall Produced by: Christian Colson, Robert Jones Cinematography by: Sam McCurdy Editing by: Chris Gill Music by: Iian Eshkeri Cast: Dominic West, Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko, Riz Ahmed, Noel Clarke, Liam Cunningham, JJ Field, Dimitri Leonidas, David Morrissey, Ulrich Thomsen, Ryan Atkinson, Imogen Poots, Dave Legeno
As almost all great epics about Rome (or the Romans) CENTURION attempts to tell a tale of love and betrayal, of soldiers and the elites, about politics and peasants – quite the same way Hollywood, or everyone else for that matter, depicts, and romanticizes, Rome as the birthplace of the western civilization that has shaped our culture, is the origin of a claimed superiority and the justification for its failures. In principle, CENTURION sticks to the clichés (and likely truths) about the Romans, but takes it all to a more personal level.
The story about the Centurion and his legion is condensed intensity, barely touching the main ingredients of a “Rome movie”, keeping the story portion down to a minimum while spending most of its time on fierce battle scenes and the escape / return from enemy lines. Thing is, CENTURION doesn’t have much of a story in the first place; I find it hard to write a synopsis about…what exactly? The ninth legion marching north to wipe out the enemy, but facing defeat instead with the survivors trying to get back to their folks? That’s as far as there’s a storyline, the rest is a 2 hours massacre.
CENTURION is burying its own grave early, allowing dramaturgy to happen only in terms of fight choreography: while the battling is well planned and a little less well executed at times, it is also very tiring and repetitive, entertaining only those who indulge in stylized brutalities and gory mayhem. With any episode of HBO’s ROME having more depth than CENTURION the movie is a one-way street, deciding early on what to be and not to be and sticking to its formula a hundred per cent. There is no turning back, also not for the audience.
When Neil Marshall scored a surprise hit with THE DESCENT (I consider his earlier DOG SOLDIERS clearly inferior) he displayed strengths that apparently have now gone missing. THE DESCENT was a clever exercise in dramatization, maximizing the impact of actions throughout time and within space. The claustrophobic shocker made the most out of a tight and tense scenario, but just as THE DESCENT didn’t require a real story to work Mr. Marshall obviously believes CENTURION doesn’t need one either. Looking at it this way THE DESCENT (just as CENTURION now) also revealed the director’s weakness, as it seems to me Mr. Marshall isn’t much of a storyteller, and that his talent rather lies with fast-paced action and highly effective shocks both of which don’t work in CENTURION (in DOOMSDAY, a movie that also had very little to say, the action was much more gripping in comparison).
The reason for that is that while space was very limited in THE DESCENT and hence a great asset to work with, space is unlimited in CENTURION and proves useless for accelerating the action or forcing certain patterns onto the acting and the choreography. What the film is left with is 1:1 combat, or group battle sequences that have no point of reference as also time is never of the essence really. As a result, the fighting never seems to gear towards a climax, is never under any constraints and hence floating loosely, without gravity that could add weight to it. Also, it is clearly less playful than in DOOMSDAY as it lacks all the fancy toys (Romans don’t ride tuned cars or use inventive weaponry).
The bloodletting and dismemberment feel like watching a “best of” compilation, and the more Mr. Marshall forces the editing to follow an almost musical rhythm, the more comical the movie seems. The saturation point is reached quickly, after which there’s nothing much for the director to add and nothing much more for the audience to wait for. We’ve seen it all after a few minutes, and we’ve seen it all somewhere else before anyhow.
THE DESCENT was a big small movie. CENTURION is a small big movie (but not that big). Mr. Marshall cannot rest on his laurels and solely live on his reputation as a member of the so-called splat-pack (an artificial label that couldn’t be any more arbitrary), but will have to up the ante if he doesn’t want to descent into insignificance.
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