(2010) director Neil Marshall
The question of the disappearance of the Ninth Roman legion is one of the great legends or mysteries of ancient history. Writer/director Neil Marshall takes the popular legend and turns it into a movie, having the famed Ninth Roman legion meet their doom against the guerilla warfare fighting Picts of Scotland. Marshall takes this legend and investigates it further, posing the story of the few surviving members of the legion, following their slaughter, and their battle to escape from the brutal, indignant Scots.
Marshall, a Scottish director, who had come to be known for a pair of good horror films, Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005), has tackled more ambitious stories in his more recent films. His last film, Doomsday (2008), imagines a futuristic Scotland, also walled away with a modern Hadrian’s Wall, the unrulable outlaw state of wild men and mountains, independence, and brutality. And in some ways, Centurion, is the historical converse of that film. Again depicting the undefeatable brutal spirit of Scotland, but this time it’s according to legend and history rather than the far-flung future.
But really, like Doomsday, Marshall gets out of his depth. Centurion, despite a pretty good cast including Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, and David Morrissey, is much more of a slog than a film when you get down to it. The dialogue, from the opening lines, is tired, unimaginitive War film stuff, and while he’s passionate about the material to an extent, his passion is really for the gritty fighting, chopping, decapitating, and digitized blood-letting that makes up a good deal of the film’s action.
The film never gets quite to the “so bad, it’s good” level, nor even really the simply “so bad, it’s bad” level, but I’d held out much more hope for Marshall, particularly after seeing The Descent, which is the best of his films. I like his commitment to Scotland, not just as a filming location, but as a key aspect of the narrative and settings of most of his films, and I’m hopeful that he might still return to material in which he’ll find his footing more strongly again. But, frankly, Centurion is not a great effort in the “sword and sandal” battle films. While it yearns a bit for Spartacus (1960), it’s not even anywhere near Gladiator (2000) nor 300 (2006), but sadly a little closer to Uwe Boll than anything.