If nothing else, Centurion proves that the Roman invasion of Northern Britain and its rabid defense by the native population is actually a cautionary warning that history has a tendency to repeat itself.
Stop me if you've heard this one: the most powerful modern army on earth attempts to subjugate a remote, "uncivilized" part of the world. They soon discover that for all of their high-tech equipment, elite training and battlefield honor, this "superior" force must now contend with an enemy that will employ any available tactic to mercilessly eliminate them as a foreign presence.
Modern parable aside, director Neil Marshall (who's already given us such solid exploitative fare as Dog Soldiers and Descent) uses his directorial soapbox to tell a harrowing action tale that's one part The Warriors, one part Gladiator and one part Saving Private Ryan.
Michael Fassbender plays Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion who's captured in a raid when the Picts attack a Roman outpost. He's brought before their fearsome leader Gorlecon (Ulrich Thomsen), who is intent on wiping out every single Roman soldier in revenge over his slaughtered family. In an effort to curry favor with Rome and earn the right to go back home, the Roman governor of Brittania dispatches the fabled Ninth Spanish Legion to Caledonia. He gives the Legion's commander, General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), a single command: eradicate every single Pict they can find.
They're joined by a beautiful but lethal mercenary scout named Etain who's been tasked to lead the Roman army to their foes. En route they come across Dias who's barely managed to escape. He calls into question Etain's loyalties but his warnings go unheeded. Eventually the scout reveals that she too has suffered immensely under the cruel hand of the Roman invaders and had her eye squarely fixed on vengeance. Thanks to her tip-off, the Roman army is nearly decimated.
Dias and six other centurion survivors undertake a dangerous trek into the heart of enemy territory in order to rescue the captured Virilus. At every step, the party is mercilessly assailed by starvation, the weather, internal treachery, wolf packs, Pictish patrols and Etain herself, who is soon revealed as death incarnate.
For the most part, Centurion is an adrenaline-fueled gauntlet that features one harrowing threat after another. Although the script could have given us few more reasons to care about the harried Romans, the principal actors do a decent job charcoal-sketching their distinct personalities. Standouts include Michael Fassbender as the stalwart and empathetic Quintus Dias and Dominic West as the brash, overconfident but undeniably noble Flavius Virilus.
Some of the minor players also get a chance to shine. Liam Cunningham's criminally underused "Brick" becomes an indomitable force as well as a welcome font of comic relief. Olga Kurylenko is also hypnotic as Etain. She's convincingly lethal and single-mindedly relentless, kinda like Michael Myers but with warpaint and ovaries. Anytime she appears on-screen we know that things are gonna get very crazy, very fast.
Watching the film is an interesting experience for anyone who's studied British history. At first I was irked by the film's fast and loose treatment of the facts, but the denouement referencing Hadrian's Wall had me chuckling to myself. Marshall's hypothesis regarding the ultimate fate of the legendary Legio Nona Hispana is also worth pondering.
Unfortunately, Centurion has a couple of irksome issues. At times the script feels half-baked, homogenized, and color-by numbers, like an inordinately bloody T.V. movie of the week. I'm also painfully bored by these sweeping, panoramic, helicopter-style camera shots that show people inexplicably running along the highest summit of snow-covered mountains. Seriously, wouldn't it make more sense to go around these friggin' things?
Mercifully, there are plenty of devious traps, daring escapes and rolling balls of flaming pitch to make up for it. The morbidly-creative gore effects also helps to offset the "attention-deficit-disorder" editing style that plagues many of the film's fight sequences.