Reviewed by Ursus
I was satisfied with Centurion. But then, I didn't have very high expectations for it. I had really wanted nothing but an action-adventure yarn with some great costumes and pretty females. That is exactly what I got, along with some surprisingly breathtaking locales. It is neither brilliant nor especially memorable, but there are certainly worse movies out there.
It is the reign of Hadrian, the height of the Roman Empire. But cracks are forming in the Roman wall. In the far flung province of Britain, the tribesman of the north have used their country's treacherous terrain and climate to their advantage, deterring the Roman eagle from making a nest in the snow-capped mountains. When the elite Ninth Legion is ordered to spearhead a counter-insurgency, they are ambushed and wiped out. A small band of survivors now find themselves hopelessly behind enemy lines. They must make their way back to safety, led by the titular centurion. Bloodthirsty barbarians hound them at every step.
The historical Ninth Legion passed into legend, where it was said to have marched north to Caledonia and vanished, presumably the victim of Pict vengeance. Some historians support this view while other feel the unit was simply redeployed (perhaps to suffer a different annihilation in other corners of the empire). It doesn't really matter. What matters is that it could have happened. Plausibility is what a legend needs for us to suspend our disbelief in order to be entertaining.
But is Centurion, at the end of the day, entertaining? Well ... I answer with a cautious "yes." It depends on what level of entertainment you are willing to accept. Personally I do like movies where a small band of heroes and villains match wits against each other. In any major movie it's a pretty safe bet the main character - our dashing young hero - will overcome odds, kill the bad guys, and end up with the nubile young female at the end. But other elements of the plot are left up to chance, and that is what makes it interesting. Centurion has about three major plot twists. I was able to predict one of these with wry certainty, but the other two admittedly took me by surprise.
Centurion is above all a visual movie. Filmed on location in Scotland, with its remote sylvan topped hills, you really do wonder why the Romans thought they could hold on to this desolate place. The Roman forts and armor look impressive (I neither know nor care how historically accurate they are in the context of the times). The shirtless, woad painted Picts are a sight to behold, their women even more of a sight (amazing how, lacking modern hygiene and makeup, they still manage perfect hair and eyelashes). Let the faint of heart be forewarned: there is gratuitous blood and gore.
The DVD includes plenty of extras: behind the scenes production notes, interviews with the cast and crew, and various out takes. Especially pertinent are some deleted scenes, whose inclusion would have improved the theatrical release. A deleted scene near the beginning of the film reveals that it was the Roman governor's wife who convinced the governor to send the Ninth into Caledonia. The little vixen, you see, believes the gung ho members of the Ninth should be aching to prove their manliness against the Picts - and once the Picts have been crushed her husband can take the credit for the victory. Without revealing too much, at the end of the movie our hero comes face to face with the Roman governor and his wife - and what happens after that takes on an extra dimension with the events of the deleted scene in mind. It's little things like this that provide some much needed subtext to the plot and characters; their subtraction from the finished product grinds the movie down to the brainless action flick that critics deride it as.
But is it really brainless? Is there a message behind the movie? Let us consider. An invading army is stuck in a place it can't hope to pacify. The "barbarian" insurgents are motivated by atrocities committed by the invaders. The presiding Roman governor cares little for the natives he is supposed to civilize or the troops under his command, and merely wants to make a name for himself. The Roman soldiers become disillusioned with the war and their government, feeling that they have seen comrades fall for nothing.
Is this a meditation on American and Allied foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan? Possibly. But, thank the gods; the director does not make anything overtly political. There is nothing I hate worse than an in-your-face message from a director with a political axe to grind, and I see no evidence of that here.
And can it not also be an allusion to every other war and conquest in history? Is there not something universal about this? Timeless parallels of invaders versus natives, the innocent versus the corrupted, duty versus revenge, honor versus disillusionment. Surely any allusion need not be pigeonholed to purely modern and American designs, for its breadth and depth encompass a far larger slice of human experience.
Or maybe it's just a ninety minute popcorn yarn about people getting chased by bad guys. Yeah ... that's probably it.