British director Neil Marshall had a memorable enough introduction with the amateurish but enthusiastic Dog Soldiers, which was Aliens, but with British soldiers in the woods instead of Colonial Marines in space, and werewolves instead of xenomorphs. After that, Marshall’s women-in-a-cave-with-monsters movie The Descent was a memorable entry in the genre of horror movies that don’t need dudes, but also don’t need to stoop to sorority house massacres. But then Marshall did the goofy goulash Doomsday, which was Aliens meets 28 Days Later and then unexpectedly stumbles onto Road Warrior and then gets tangled up with Ladyhawk on the way to the closing credits.
So what to expect from Marshall’s latest movie, a swords & sandals non-epic about Roman soldiers ambushed in hostile territory and then hunted by a Ukrainian model wearing someone’s Blizzcon costume? Pictured, of course. In Marshall’s version of ancient history, hot Pict chicks abound and the villain’s name is Gorlacon. Go ahead, say that out loud a few times. “Gorlacon”. Roll it around on your tongue. “Gorlacon”. It’s pronounced exactly like it’s spelled, as if it was an annual gathering of Gorla fans. “Gorlacon”.
At one point, the conveniently diverse band of surviving soldiers is hiding in a cave, exchanging backstory with each other over dinner. Michael Fassbender’s voiceover shuts up long enough to let everyone else talk. Liam Cunningham, the token older guy, says, “This was supposed to be my last tour. I had my eye on a farm in Tuscany.” That’s Latin for being two days from retirement. I wish I could write dialogue that bad. Centurion is easily the worst movie Marshall has made, and I suspect it’s a long downhill slide from here. Was The Descent just an anomaly?
If you must watch a swords & sandals movie, I heartily recommend Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle for getting right pretty much everything Centurion got wrong. Strong actors, a powerful sense of history and setting, and actual character development. About the only edge Centurion enjoys is its splatter sensibility. Marshall doesn’t shoot action scenes so much as he edits together gore effects. But The Eagle, which stars no hot Ukrainian models, knows enough to spin a great story around two talented lead actors who work really well together. One of the leads is Jamie Bell, so no surprise there, and the other is Channing Tatum.
And if you’re up for something more contemporary by about a thousand years, the enjoyably grim Ironclad, from director Jonathan English, is a real treat for the performances, the writing, the battles scenes, and the nifty historical angle in which Paul Giamatti, as a petulant English king, decides he didn’t want to sign the Magna Carta after all, so he’s going to round up a bunch of Vikings to take back England. It’s up to a hearty band of actually English actors and Kate Mara to stop him.