Centurion, the latest from genre filmmaker Neil Marshall, is a brawny, fast-paced behind-enemy-lines chase drama running through a slightly predictable piece of historical fiction.
After a credit sequence flyover of some magnificent scenery, the camera descends on Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) fleeing across Northern Britain, bleeding, half naked, and bound at the wrists. He escaped the clutches of the savage Picts, a native race who attacked his Roman military outpost leaving him the sole survivor.
Dias briefly falls into the rescuing hands of the famed Ninth Legion, ordered to march into the empire’s outskirts and quell the Pict guerrilla rebellion circa 117 A.D. History will tell you the infantry unit mysteriously disappeared, but Marshall stages a brutal ambush with giant balls of fire and fierce warriors slaughtering the troops and capturing General Virilus (played by the consistently charismatic Dominic West of “The Wire”).
Only Dias and a half-dozen men survive, stranded deep in Pict territory and pursued by their relentless tracker, Etain (Olga Kurylenko). Since Etain’s tongue was cut out by the enemy she’s mute, but Kurylenko delivers a menacing silent performance with her piercing eyes and deadly beauty alone. At the very least it spares the audience stock antagonist lines like “I’ll get you Quintus Dias if it’s the last thing I do!” Then again, this isn’t Doomsday…
The remaining legionnaires form a Seven Samurai-like squad, except the characters are unevenly fleshed out making it easy to predict who the Pict hunters will pick off first. Fassbender is strong in the inherited leadership role, bringing levels of intensity and a range of emotion you won’t see from go-to action hero Sam Worthington.
Like the first two battle set pieces, the stop-and-fight encounters are drenched in gore and tightly edited into slicing metal and finishing moves. Disposable characters are skewered on the tips of spears or run through with swords sending fountains of blood spurting out. Those looking for epic action will be satiated until Marshall pauses the violence for a last-minute romantic subplot that only serves the film’s rushed ending.
Expert cinematography captures the rugged conditions with beautiful sweeping landscape shots of mountainous terrain or cameras entrenched in the gritty hack-and-slash action sequences. With its confident visual style and strong attention to detail, you feel like you’re sloshing through the muddy waters or frigid snow banks with the soldiers. If only you cared about more than one of them.
3.5 out of 5.