The success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator prompted a brief revival of sword & sandal cinema. Action fans would have no doubt welcomed a string of macho sword and sandal epics. Unfortunately, the films that resulted – Troy and Alexander among them – were overstuffed and unfocused big-budget duds that failed to deliver the old-school heroics and bloody swordplay that genre fans were hoping for. As a result, the revival quietly fizzled out.
It might have been a different story if Hollywood had instead produced some films like Centurion. This recent British effort from Neil Marshall is exactly the kind of rousing, bloody adventure fare that action fans love. For starters, it uses a novel setting as its hook: it takes place in England during 117 A.D., when the Romans were trying to conquer that land and found themselves locked in battle with the tenacious, guerilla-minded Picts. The film illustrates this conflict in its opening scenes as a Roman settlement is overrun by Picts and Centurion Quintus Dius (Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds fame) is kidnapped because he can speak the Pict language.
After a torturous stint as a prisoner, Quintus escapes and is saved from a group of chasing Picts by Roman soldiers. He teams up with their general, Titus (Dominic West), and they plan an attack of the Picts with the help of renegade Pict-turned-guide, Etain (Olga Kurylenko). Unfortunately, she is a double-agent who leads them into an ambush that wipes out most of the Roman battalion and ends in the capture of Titus. Quintus rallies with the survivors and plots to free Titus. It’s a suicide mission – and even if they rescue the general, they have to escape through treacherous foreign lands as the wolf-like Etain leads the chase.
The end result is a bracing mix of the old and the new: it’s got the macho heroes and the derring-do of vintage sword & sandal epics but it is has updated the formula in some interesting ways. For example, women have better/stronger roles to play in this modern take on the genre: Etain is a formidable foe (as is Axelle Carolyn, who essays the role of a fellow female Pict warrior) and there is also a heroic, independent female character played by Imogen Poots who assists the heroes in the latter part of the film.
Another memorable addition to the genre in Centurion is a surprisingly high level of gore for a non-horror film. The action scenes give the viewer no quarter as they display all manner of horrific sights: bloody spectacles include a spear to the groin, a knife through the eye into the brain and a sword impaling one hapless soul through the mouth as well as countless slashings, beheadings and limb-lopping. Some of the arterial spray effects are handled via CGI and that might annoy a segment of the audience – but these effects are rendered better than in other recent CGI gore spectacles (ahem, Ninja Assassin) and the digital stuff is combined with plenty of old-fashioned on-set gore FX.
Centurion is also skillfully acted by a well-chosen European cast. Fassbender is suitably dashing as the never-say-die hero and handles the action with confidence. West also registers strongly as the macho general and Liam Cunningham gets in a few nice scenes as a surviving soldier who becomes a trusted ally for Quintus. On the villain side, Ulrich Thomsen gives a subtly ominous performance as the Pict leader but its Kurylenko who really carries the bad-guy side of things. Her character is mute so she has to convey everything via physical presence and she makes it work with a feral yet haunting take on the role.
Finally, Marshall’s direction seals the film’s barnstorming appeal. Fans who feared he might have lost his way with unfocused, curiously uninspired Doomsday can breathe a sigh of relief because his work here is focused and sharp. He maintains a taut pace throughout, handling both the large-scale and more intimate scenes with confidence as he punctuates the film with several precise, hard-hitting action scenes. He also makes fantastic use of the wintry countryside settings, effectively deploying a regular stream of aerial shots to enhance the film’s visual scope. If there’s a criticism to be made here, it could be said that the final few scenes seem a little hastily-constructed compared to the rest of the film – but that’s a small quibble in light of how well the film works overall.
To sum up, this tribute to a vintage genre has enough forward-thinking elements to allow it to play well on modern terms. Thus, Centurion is a solid selection for cult film types in search of a quality modern action flick.