Shallow things first: as far as looks go, the gore is still there. Top halves of heads get lopped off in the heat of battle, and one unfortunate winner memorably receives a flying javelin straight through his mouth and out the back of his head. It’s like 300 minus the perfect visuals and slow motion—so I guess this is 300 meets Blackhawk Down? It’s not all unrestrained violence on display here either; confusing visuals get thrown in, like the young Celtic warrior woman who’s apparently discovered white hair dye and wears enough eyeshadow to put Evanescence to shame. Maybe she’s graying before her time? It’s never explained. It’s just there. Considering Marshall’s entertainingly insane medieval/dieselpunk style crossover in Doomsday, I have to wonder if he’s trying his best to get his usual self-awareness into the strictures of a period piece.
After a tense, bloody plot framing device in which the Celts assault an outpost that guards Rome’s northern English frontier, we meet our heroes. They’re all serving in the Roman Ninth Legion in one role or another, and they’re being ordered to march into the wild north of the border and put down a growing rebel movement. Compared to the excellent introduction we get to the main character in Doomsday and the boring, but at least organized, introduction to everybody else, this first act is a mess. There’s a couple of decoy protagonists set up amongst the initial set of characters, and, under orders, they allow themselves to be led north by a definitely trustworthy Celtic guide… who happens to be a woman with eyeshadow and some white and black hair. Surprise surprise, she’s a double agent and leads them into a trap. After the inevitable ambush that wipes out the redshirts… I mean, the fierce legion in enemy territory, the real cast is introduced, most of whom are survivors of the attack that we’ve never met before. Since we don’t get much backstory for them, even by the end of the movie, it’s hard to care.
At least Centurion is historically accurate. The Picts are portrayed as scarily effective fighters with a thirst for bloody vengeance. Their grievances against the conquesting Romans are understandable, and many of the Celtic characters introduced have suffered personal familial losses during the war. On the other hand, we never actually see most of the Roman characters commit atrocities, but there’s that nagging sense that they would… under orders. Nobody’s very likable or has truly deep motives—points for historical accuracy? Anyway, after the legion collapses, our “heroes” flee south with pursuers hot on their heels led by double agent Evanescence girl, intent on killing the Ninth Legion to the last man. If Doomsday was a post-disaster chase movie, this is a historical chase movie with hardly any breaks in the action. Everyone involved probably got more screen time running and fighting than they did speaking. There’s a mandatory love subplot thrown in. It’s about five or ten minutes long.
Friends of mine who’ve never seen any other Neil Marshall efforts said they enjoyed this movie for what it was—a competent chase movie. If you’re a history buff and like R-rated action, then stream this one on Netflix for sure. I greatly enjoy history, but, if you’re like me and have come to expect Neil Marshall movies from Neil Marshall, then Centurion feels like a joke with no punchline. That’s not to say the movie’s a joke, or the story’s a joke. There are plenty of shows and flicks with bad setup; this isn’t one of them. But, the fact that character backgrounds and motives can be covered in a few sentences on screen and then never spoken of again makes them feel expendable, and so when they die gruesomely, there’s no surprise and no sense of loss. It’s like the blonde cheerleader or the black guy in a horror movie. Everyone knows they’re toast from the get-go.
Ultimately, there’s no payoff to this expectation of horror movie farce that the lack of backstory and the abundance of Neil Marshall’s name creates for Neil Marshall fans… or for history buffs. Marshall has moved on from history epics for now and is currently working on a new horror movie that he described as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven meets H.P. Lovecraft. That’s the sort of thing I almost expected out of him in Centurion despite reading the synopsis; what can I say, the man’s been predictable, thus far. Part of me wishes he’d just made that At the Mountains of the Cowboys of Madness movie sooner and skipped the period piece. However, if you haven’t seen anything by Neil Marshall, maybe it would be best to start with Centurion. It doesn’t do well under the weight of Marshall’s other work, but it’s a fun chase movie in its own right and it shows off his distinctive, messy style with pride.