Centurion (Magnet Releasing, R)

 Add it together and you’ve got something that’s fine for a midnight screening or a Saturday matinee (although it’s too violent for kids) but doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.  



There are some good things in Centurion, Neil Marshall’s popcorn movie take on the legend of the Ninth Roman Legion. Michael Fassbender with his shirt off is high on that list, as are the splendid views of the Scottish countryside provided courtesy of cinematographer Sam McCurdy.  There’s also some cool face paint on the Picts and vast quantities of creative mayhem all around — Marshall seems to be trying to one-up George Romero in the unexpected-methods-of-dismemberment department.
Unfortunately, Centurion has more than enough flaws to balance matters out, beginning with a script (also by Marshall) that isn’t even trying. There’s no tension (kind of problematic in an action film) because the fix is clearly in from the start, and the whole 97 minutes feels like a series of set pieces loosely strung together. The characters are shamelessly stereotypical. The key role of a female warrior is played by a supermodel who looks like she might blow away in the wind. Add it together and you’ve got something that’s fine for a midnight screening or a Saturday matinee (although it’s too violent for kids) but doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.
It’s A.D. 117 and the Roman Empire, not satisfied with controlling a large portion of the known world, seeks to expand its franchise North into Scotland. Not surprisingly, the Picts who live there are not interested in becoming Roman subjects. They’re also rather fierce guerilla warriors who give the better-equipped Romans more than they can handle. If this sounds like any conflicts currently taking place in the world, just remember that old dictum: historical movies are always about the time in which they are made, not the time in which the action is set.
Anyway, Marshall once again treats us to the story of a small band of survivors trying to make their way through hostile territory to safety. They include, besides Fassbender’s character Quintus Dias, Macros (Noel Clarke), Brick (Liam Cunningham), Tarak (Riz Ahmed), Bothos (David Morrisey) and Thax (J.J. Feild). Each has a dominant characteristic, which makes them easy to tell apart: Macros is an African, Thax is a joker, and so on. The Picts are a pretty undifferentiated lot in their furs and blue face paint, except for the mute tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko, who really is a supermodel as well as a Bond girl) and beautiful social outcast Arianne (Imogen Poots).
There’s plenty of action, that’s for sure — for those of you keeping score, prosthetic designer Paul Hyett says the crew went through about 175 liters of fake blood over the course of the film. It all feels kind of flat and perfunctory, though, and if you know the rules of screenplay writing you can easily guess how it’s going to come out. That would be OK for a summer movie, except that Marshall sets up premises and then blatantly deviates from them in order to get to a predetermined conclusion. Plus, for the story to work you have to side with the invading Romans instead of asking why they don’t just go back to where they came from. Of course that’s not how empires are built, but a film that casts the imperialist aggressors as heroes is a hard sell — it’s sort of like making a film about heroic Nazis and expecting it to play in Poland.
In Marshall’s defense, the idea is that you will root for the endangered band of brothers and not consider the larger scheme of things, and he does make the Roman brass so despicable that the soldiers look heroic by comparison. But on the whole, I’d say he should go back to werewolves and leave the historical epics in peace. | Sarah Boslaugh

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