With the constant threats on your life, being a soldier in a medieval army must have been the cause of an epidemic of acid reflux. If the movies are to be believed, you couldn’t have a mid-afternoon snack or take a power nap without the very real possibility of a foreign sword giving your throat a close shave. Zach Snyder’s 300 was a film that perpetuated that myth, it suggested that the best way to survive life in the army was to either shout at the top of your lungs or fight in slow motion.
Neil Marshall’s Centurion simplifies that formula by eliminating the need for shouting and just gives us the gory deaths, mostly at normal speed. Marshall one-ups Snyder by forgoing the philosophy and simply concentrating on mass carnage, meaning Centurion moves at a tightly packed, cold blue tinted, and subplot free 95 minutes of chases vs. the start-stop-start pacing and photographic style of 300. And by clamping down on the yelling, the dialogue only needs to be above the level of “not embarrassing” to avoid distraction. Centurion mostly manages that, though it’s pretty anachronistically modern in its specific choices of lowbrow humor. The only important statement is made early on and it sums up the movie quite succinctly, “we’ve come here looking for a fight.”
And fights are what Marshall provides. And flaming arrows to the head, arrows through the mouth, urine-soaked waterboarding, and plentiful CGI blood. How many circular helicopter shots of one soldier on top of a mountain is too many? Marshall’s would-be answer is, “I’d have included more of them if time permitted.” Of course that tells you originality isn’t all that important to him, hence his last film Doomsday, which was an awkward and overlong genre blend of Escape From New York and The Road Warrior rip-offs and anything else post-apocalyptic that came to mind. Marshall was on firmer, more consistent ground with Dog Soldiers and The Descent, and he’s learned from his missteps by not going the epic route with Centurion.
In this case, his heroes are the Romans and the British, fighting off the Picts, a nomadic Celtic tribe (who would be considered Scottish now) who have been outfitted to appear like the aliens from Battlefield Earth (minus the big boots), all dirty dreads and pale make-up. Luckily, there’s no self-awareness about the inherent silliness and limited nature of the film. This is a wise move because the more seriously the actors (including two 300 alumni) and filmmakers take the film, the more ridiculous and amusing the movie becomes. If there was a joke about the black cook who joins up with the heroes played by Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey (and a terrific small part for Dominic West, all beard and muscles), it would ruin everything, instead of being what it is; the best action hero cook since Under Siege. There’s only time for one quick bonding scene in front of a warm fire and then back to the carnage, mist, and mountains.
There’s no deeper meaning behind the fighting (it doesn’t really matter what time period we’re in anyway), they fight because…. It’s entertaining for us to watch. And also because of what Marshall knows to be true in his heart, to have a whole face sliced off is infinitely less visually interesting than to slice off half a face. That’s just common sense.