Being an American soaked in Irish blood, particularly here in New England, has its drawbacks. They’re hardly the sort of thing that dog me through life, but most people make all sorts of faulty assumptions about Irish people and automatically associate those of us with ancestral bonds to the old country with stereotypes that really fucking suck. The stereotypes, though celebrated by just about everyone but me, include but are not limited to the beliefs that: I am a rowdy booze hound with a boner for Guinness, that my favorite band now and forever is The Dropkick Murphys, that no Friday night is complete without a fist fight, that I have a separate wardrobe of green clothing specifically for St. Patrick’s Day and that I am a shame-ridden Catholic with an unquenchable desire to procreate. Truthfully, I don’t drink much these days and when I do, I go for vodka. I can take or leave Guinness. I’m a recovering Catholic, a strong advocate of birth control, I thought the Dropkick Murphys were better before Al Barr joined the band and the only people who wear green to the office on St. Patty’s Day aren’t Irish. I’m also repelled by the entire notion of St. Patrick. By driving out the snakes, they mean driving out thousands of years of cultural heritage and replacing it with Christian faith.
That said, I’m in love with my own tribal heritage. The modern picture of Ireland is a portrait painted in the minds of most people by James Joyce, whether they know it or not and that’s really too bad because in spite of ridiculous accents and lovable drunkards living in the dreary setting, Ireland’s cultural heritage in the days of the Celts is fucking awesome! Vikings get all the credit for being Europe’s resident badasses, but the Celtic and Picts of the region were easily just as badass and routinely went toe to toe in a mad dash for resources. What is known in the region since the tribal people of Britain weren’t too keen on writing shit down for posterity is pretty slim and the only reason we know what we know is handed down from word of mouth storytelling and the records of Roman invaders from the period and the stories those guys tell, particularly about their push into Scotland, are pretty dire. The Celtic tribes of the time were hardcore. Maybe this is why while watching Neil Marshall’s latest gory action flick, Centurion, I kept finding myself rooting for the Pict villains of the movie. This is not a good sign for your movie when the bad guys are confused for the good guys.
Rome had been fucking with the westernmost regions of Europe for a while before they decided to throw caution to the wind and deliver legions of troops into what is now The United Kingdom. Subjugating most of England was a breeze, according to historical documents and archaeological evidence, but they would eventually head north into Caledonia, aka Scotland, and find fierce resistance in the form of The Picts, a gnarly confederation of Celtic tribes living in the region who struck hard and fast and used the terrain to their advantage. They were an irresistable force and Rome’s mighty legions couldn’t rub them out no matter what they did. Centurion takes place in these desperate last days of Rome’s incursion and concerns the fate of the Ninth Legion. Where other Roman Legions are documented pretty well, the fate of the Ninth is a bit of a mystery and the subject of much debate among experts in the field. It’s a popular belief that they were slaughtered during the push into Scotland and this movie makes a script out of this belief. In the movie, the Ninth is summoned to make one last scorched earth push into Scotland and to crush the Picts by any means necessary but the Picts have a spy in the Roman ranks who leads the Romans into the trap that leads to nearly the entire Legion being killed. The last few Roman soldiers infiltrate the Pict settlement to free their captive general, but when this doesn’t happen and one of the scuzzier soldiers kills the Pict king’s son, it kicks off a chase to Roman occupied Scotland with the Pict hunters hot on the heels of our fleeing Roman soldiers.
Basically, Centurion is The Warriors set in proto-historical England.
I really, really wanted to like Centurion and while it’s hardly a bad movie, it is so deeply flawed and its characters are so hard to connect with. Director, Neil Marshall, blew me away with his early features, Dog Soldiers and The Descent, but once his reputation had grown to attract real budgets and a new creative freedom thanks to the rise in popularity of revivalist genre movies, Doomsday and now Centurion left me a little cold. Nobody shoots violence like Marshall, though, and on the upside, his action scenes herein, are mostly solid and exciting affairs. Every chop, slash and hit results in an eruption of blood and severed body parts. The only thing stealing points from his otherwise killer battle scenes is the obvious presence of CGI blood and gore that will forever piss me off.
Stealing further points are Marshall’s wafer-thin hero characters. Star, Michael Fassbender, does his job admirably and this is no small feat since he’s left in charge of a bunch of Roman soldiers that Marshall wants you so badly to sympathize with but given my thirst for history and heritage, all I could think about while watching Centurion was that Roman invaders, in every context, were a bunch of murderers and rapists and even though Centurion’s ill-fated heroes weren’t necessarily rapists and murderers, they’re pretty much guilty by association. On the other hand, Marshall weakly makes attempts to villify the Pict villains and their savage king, Gorlacon, a farmer driven by revenge and his killing machine, Etain, a tongueless woman driven by revenge. The Romans had done horrible things to these people and as far as I’m concerned, the invaders get what they deserve. If Marshall was trying to blur the line between hero and villain in this case, he fails miserably because the rest of the movie just isn’t that nuanced. We spend long spans of time watching Romans run through forest, field and snow, looking desperate while cutting away to painted Picts on horseback riding through forest, field and snow looking off into the distance with determination as they track their prey. Occasionally, the chase is interrupted by violence so the Picts can thin the herd and satisfy our thirst for on-screen blood.
Centurion faces some fairly serious pacing issues where long stretches are filled with flimsy character development and weak attempts to build sympathy for a bunch of loathsome Roman soldiers. There’s also a lot of running and walking. Lots. The only character that I actually liked and wanted to see survive was played by Noel Clarke and that’s just because I liked him on Doctor Who. On the upside, if you’re going to be rooting for the villains like I was, you get an intimidating and badass group of hunters to like and the action scenes involving them are savage, raw and completely satisfying. The very first kill is a Roman soldier getting stabbed in the balls when he stops to take a leak off the side of the garrison. Plus lots of people get their heads cut in half. In the end, though, what you’re left with is an action movie wildly out of balance with a series of forgettable protagonists and a story that is most good guys running from bad guys. My recommendation is watch it for the battle scenes, which rock, and then fill the void in your life left by Centurion with a screening of The Warriors.