In 117 AD the famed Ninth Legion of the Roman army inexplicably disappeared. Through the centuries many legends pertaining to the missing squadron have unfurled. Some claim that the harsh elements of northern Britain brought them to their doom while more extraordinary stories suggest that supernatural forces laid waste to the soldiers. Writer-director Neil Marshall sought to set the record straight about the lost faction of fearless Romans with his new film Centurion but his audience receives much more mutilation than explanation.
A highly explosive cocktail of blood sweat and steel the film centers on Michael Fassbender’s Quintus Dias the stoic soldier for whom the film is titled and a captive of the savage Picts who have thwarted Roman subjugation for decades with effective guerrilla tactics. Quintus manages to escape the Picts’ village and regroup with the Ninth Legion led by the brave General Virilus (Dominic West) which happens to be on its way to finally end the devastation at the behest of a pushy Roman governor. Like every failed attempt at conquest the Roman forces are demolished. Quintus manages to survive yet again (cue eye-roll) along with a small group of battered warriors who end up on the run through treacherous terrain trying to stay a step ahead of Etain (Olga Kurylenko) a feared Pict huntress whose only joy in life comes from spilling Roman blood.
Like the movie’s breakneck production pace the story moves incredibly quickly leaving little time for the plot to be fully fleshed out (there’s not much of it anyway). The film would have benefitted from some more character development especially with the supporting cast because it is intended to be an ensemble piece but as each soldier got picked off I began to realize how insignificant most of them were to the narrative. As with all chase films though it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps you engaged and Centurion delivers in that sense.
Fans of Marshall’s previous films The Descent and Doomsday will be drawn to Centurion’s similarly sadistic depiction of violence which is in no short order. Squeamish moviegoers will likely spend at least half of the movie’s 97-minute runtime with their eyes clenched as heroes and villains hack away at heads and limbs vividly illustrating the less-than-civilized age in which the film is set. Had previous entries into the swords-and-sandals genre like Braveheart and Gladiator not shown audiences and filmmakers alike that blood and story can be successfully balanced Centurion would’ve fared better but the director’s preference of gore over plot points kept me from ever being able to take it seriously.
Marshall’s mind is like an encyclopedia of genre conventions and he puts this knowledge to good use in terms of the movie’s technical components conforming to the visual style that we’ve come to expect from this period. If it’s growth that you’re hoping for don’t expect to find much; the only sign of it that the filmmaker demonstrates is in his at-times surprisingly poetic dialogue which describes the repulsive details of war and gives its deliverer Quintus much-needed depth. Credit is also due to a handful of the actors (namely Fassbender West and Kurylenko) who braved health-hazardous conditions to get the film made and take the on-screen chaos in stride no matter how absurd it gets.
As a wife and mother Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has a seemingly idyllic life until a sudden accident rips her family away from her. That sets in motion a kind of healing reunion a year later. Her feisty friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince Sarah to join a few other friends on a caving expedition--including Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) a butch caver who impulsively does whatever she wants and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) an overly-cautious climber who needs to map out everything they do. Thing is this thrill-seeking challenge turns out to much more than they expected especially when they are trapped and suddenly notice white shadows squirming around them. Not good. The mostly unknown actresses in this scare fest are all decent in their Descent--and although grappling with one-dimensional characters the women still manage to convey the suffocating feeling of being confined in small spaces. In the dark dripping wet environ they deliver realistic reactions to the horror unfolding around them which is about as chilling as anyone can imagine. MacDonald as the long-suffering widow is a particular treat as she changes from a pitiful whiner to a kick-ass survivor who exacts revenge in different ways. Originally released in England British director Neil Marshall has handed us an appropriately creepy film which taps into primal fears--dark claustrophobic spaces things that go bump in the night--situations we usually see men deal with. So it's quite refreshing to watch women handle it especially in the way Marshall unravels the female camaraderie as expertly as the climbers tie their ropes. The Descent displays squirm-inducing violence that's not at all white-washed just because there are ladies involved. It's gory and brutal. The scariest moments are often obscured by the dark and in some scenes the film resorts to a Blair Witch Project point of view by watching the action through a camcorder. Although this Americanized version has a different ending from the British version (apparently one not so morbid) it's still far better than last year's abysmal The Cave. The Descent will definitely get your heart rate up!