Centurion makes a fatal misstep in its very concept. It focuses on a ragtag group of one-dimensional Romans fighting for their lives against the Pictish tribes of Caledonia, when the Picts are the ones depicted as sympathetic and just in their fight. A movie about the tricky gray areas and moral ambivalence inherent in war could have pulled off a story focusing on the Romans, but this is not that movie. For the majority of its runtime, this is a movie about black-and-white heroes and villains, and because the story focuses on the Romans, they become the heroes whether we like it or not.
Take, for example, a scene in which two Roman soldiers flip a coin to determine who will kill a captured Pict. The winner of the toss apologizes to the loser, because that’s how much they revel in carnage. Later in the film, one character slices a hole in the leg of his comrade, partly to prevent him from keeping up, partly to distract the wolves on their tails. These are all terrible people, yet the movie expects us to sympathize with them by virtue of the fact that the camera spends more time aimed at them than at the Picts.
Compare the Romans to Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a Pictish scout who infiltrates the Romans, feigns loyalty for years, and ultimately leads the 3000-strong Ninth Legion into a brutal trap. Seems pretty hostile, right? That’s before the film reveals that she was forced to watch as Romans tortured and murdered her parents—before cutting out her tongue to ensure she wouldn’t say anything negative about the Roman Empire. Suddenly, her actions seem a little bit more just. Similarly, the king of the Picts, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), sends Etain and numerous warriors to track and kill the goony survivors of the Ninth Legion. It seems sort of petty to send hundreds of troops after a half-dozen men—except for the part where one of those men murdered his 10-year-old son to keep him quiet while they attempted to rescue their general (played by a scenery-chewing Dominic West).
Centurion could have been a good film if writer/director Neil Marshall had any interest in exploring the complexity of wartime behavior. He doesn’t, aside from a few treacly, obvious statements about the futility of war in the last half hour. Even those statements are undermined by the borderline-pornographic depiction of war gore. I don’t know if Marshall wants us to relish in the carnage or the surprisingly impressive special effects, but this movie is unabashedly, ridiculously violent. Emphasis on “ridiculous”—the violence here makes Kill Bill look like The Deer Hunter.
Ostensibly, the film follows centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who becomes the de facto leader of the survivors after their general gets captured by the Picts. They struggle to make their way to the Roman-occupied territory to the south, but Etain is hot on their trail. That’s pretty much all there is to the story. The characters are exquisitely thin, each given a trait that ultimately proves useful—one’s a cook, one’s a marathon runner, one’s an archer—but Quintus lacks even one of those traits. Well, okay—he knows the Pictish language, so he can communicate with them, but that’s just not enough. He’s supposed to anchor this film, so it would have been nice if Marshall had taken the time to give him a personality. A failed eleventh-hour romance with a peacenik Pict (Imogen Poots) does nothing to solve this problem.
I’ll sometimes give a pass to the story and characters in a war film if the filmmakers have something interesting to say about war. Centurion doesn’t. It’s not much more than a loud, dumb action movie. Despite what it is, Marshall tries to direct it like a sweeping historical epic. Unfortunately, a film needs more than period costumes, majestic music, and well-choreographed battle scenes to make it an epic. It needs fully realized characters, an absorbing story, and some sort of resonant theme.
Centurion lacks all three, but it takes itself too seriously to work as the loud, dumb action movie it should be. The result is simply a good-looking bad film.