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Dominic West in CENTURION (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

Written & Directed by
Neil Marshall
Produced by Christian Colson & Robert Jones

Released by Magnolia Pictures
UK. 97 min. Rated R
Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Lian Cunningham & Imogen Poots

“History is written in blood,” so go the ads for writer-director Neil Marshall’s historical actioner Centurion. In this case, by the CGI bucketful. In the movie’s 10-minute centerpiece, a Roman legion is wiped out by its enemies. Bodies are hacked, gutted, charred, filleted, bashed, snapped, and crushed by flaming boulders, each rapid edit unveiling an outrageous, imaginative new death. It’s exciting stuff, tickling the inner-sociopath of every viewer. But its inventive and envelope-pushing violence is all Centurion really has going for it—and in the end, it’s not much.

Loosely based on the still-unexplained disappearance of the Ninth Legion in Scotland about two thousand years ago, the movie owes less to history and more to Mel Gibson. Or rather, the 1966 classic The Naked Prey, by way of Gibson’s Mesoamerican reimagining Apocalypto. After a remote fort in Scotland is sacked, a Roman legion is sent out to pacify the wild Pict tribes, who resent Rome's brutal rule. Once there, the troops get ambushed and basically exterminated. A band of survivors carefully drawn from every corner of the empire—including a couple Roman hearties, a Greek, even an African—attempt to save their leader (a blustering Dominic West, having a grand ol’ time) and then make the deadly trek back to Hadrian’s Wall, all the while pursued by the tribes. Aside from a ridiculous lull involving a comely young witch, the chase is rousing enough, although the director seems to think throwing dozens of sweeping helicopter shots over majestic landscapes at the audience equals “epic.”

As an unfailing rule of cinema, if Rome is mentioned there will be Modern Parallels. The filmmakers clearly mean for the viewer to mostly sympathize with the cruel but downtrodden Picts, victims of Roman imperialism, but still root for the common Roman soldiers (and not their nasty leaders, all baddies). But the larger parallels are to another recent gory take on ancient history. One has the sense the producers hoped 300’s box-office success would rub off on it, casting one of its actors (Michael Fassbender) as the hero Quintus and, in a bit part, an actor who looks like Gerard Butler’s stand-in. While Fassbender’s British gentlemanliness is fine, his self-important voiceovers, nasally reflections on duty and honor, feel like they were pulled from another movie.

More problematic is Olga Kurylenko playing a mute Pict of uncertain loyalty who leads the Romans to her people. Done up like Joan Jett, with heavy black eyeliner and a pile of dark hair, Kurylenko is hot but ridiculous, another 98-pound supermodel able to dispatch burly warriors with her dainty fists. (In fairness, it’s only slightly less ridiculous than frail, waifish Angelina Jolie clobbering a whole assignment of Secret Service agents in Salt.) In fact, it often seems like Marshall was inspired less by nights pored over a well-thumbed copy of his Livy and more by the sort of babes ‘n’ fantasy art that adorned Saddam Hussein’s palaces. This is the Roman Empire as conceived by a Dungeons & Dragons game master. Brendon Nafziger
August 27, 2010



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