Centurion is an economical movie. It is economical in its re-use of sets (one Roman fortress is much like another), set-ups (why waste perfectly good water-dunking rig on just one shot?), and in storytelling (lean, efficient borrowing from other movies). The only thing it is profligate with is digital blood.
Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy Centurion. I’m a sucker for sword & sandal settings (see the Agora review) and 117 A.D. in Roman-occupied Britain is one of the best settings I can think of. You have bad-ass Picts like King Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen) and the she-wolf Etain (Olga Kurylenko) versus clever and honorable Roman soldiers like General Virilius (The Wire‘s Dominic West) and Quintus Dias (Inglourious Basterds‘ Michael Fassbender).
I guess the main problem with the plot is not that the storytelling is so fleet that it leaps over important conflicts — would there be so little debate between a scraggly band of survivors over whether to attempt a suicide mission? — the main problem is that we’re supposed to be rooting for the Romans.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit queasy with the notion of empires. Roman, American, whatever. As this film amply demonstrates, they are maintained with the blood of soldiers. And to what purpose? Did the Roman empire need peat moss to preserve its way of life?
Quintus and the small band of soldiers he leads behind enemy lines are heroic characters. But it’s hard to root for them to kill the Picts, who are, after all, fighting not only to avenge the rape of their women and pillage of their countryside, but for sheer survival.
Writer/director Neil Marshall (The Descent) is smart enough to create the ironies of a futile mission and a rebel band fighting a rebel band. But he is not able to build them into anything of dramatic consequence. Because of the setting and the gritty, crushed-black cinematography, this movie will inevitably be compared with 300. But it lacks the operatic approach to violence and the visual poetry of a graphic novel brought to life.
In 300, a legion of underdogs fought to save civilization itself. In Centurion, the legionnaires are fighting for nothing, and they know it.