Britain, 117 AD. Tired of constant harassment by the Picts in Caledonia, the Romans send in their toughest legion, the Ninth. However, after things don’t exactly turn out as planned, the few survivors, led by Quintus Dias (Fassbender), have to struggle back to the border before fierce, vengeful warrior Etain (Kurylenko) wipes them all out.
Neil Marshall’s latest involves a small group of people facing overwhelming odds in a hostile environment. Blood is spilled and there is gore galore as they fight their way to safety. Sound familiar? First it was squaddies beset by werewolves in a Scottish forest. Then it was spelunking women swarmed by flesh-eating Gollums in an American cave (the exteriors actually shot in Scotland). Next it was a sci-fi military unit dealing with cannibalistic punks and, er, medieval warriors in post-apocalyptic Scotland. Now it’s a rag-tag group of Roman soldiers hounded by Picts far behind enemy lines in first-century Caledonia, aka Scotland.
Like many filmmakers before him, Marshall evidently finds creative comfort in adhering to formula, and we should at least thank him for settling on one more ambitious than those concerning low-rent gangsters or football hooligans. But while Centurion is a solid entertainment, you can’t help wondering if it’s now time for a change of gears as well as genres. Maybe even — whisper it — direct someone else’s script.
Not that we mean to hurry him south of Hadrian’s Wall anytime soon. Marshall’s attraction to Scotland’s dramatic, storm-blasted landscape has never been so fruitful. Quintus (Michael Fassbender) and his men run a gauntlet of hail, mist and shadow in a land as threatening as it is beautiful, and from the opening scene, in which Fassbender’s hardy legionary scrambles through snow with his grimy torso bare, the land’s cold, hard bite is keenly felt. For Hadrian’s Romans this was the world’s edge, and the Geordie director’s affinity to the country, complemented, of course, by cinematographer Sam McCurdy’s excellent location lensing, makes Caledonia the movie’s most impressive antagonist.
The visuals are, at times, comparable with those of Ridley Scott, and it’s not hard to spot that Gladiator’s opening battle scene exerts a weighty influence, especially on Centurion’s money sequence. Here the Pictish hordes descend on Roman bad-asses the Ninth Legion, hacking the force down to the small group of survivors — a good cross-section of British and Irish talent, including Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey, J. J. Feild, Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed — who must rescue their general (Dominic West) and get the hell home.
It’s at this point, though, that Centurion becomes less sure-footed, as the frantic chase dynamic sadly pummels the characterisation. Marshall sets up the survivors we haven’t already met with a cursory campfire introduction scene, then gets them running and mercilessly dispatches each in short order before we really get a chance to know them. Quintus and co.’s pursuers aren’t given much longer shrift; making Olga Kurylenko’s wolfish warrior Etain mute reduces her to a collage of scowls — a shame, as the character’s grievance against the Romans (who are, after all, the invaders) deserves better airing. The edit also is merciless and, save for a diversion so Quintus can hook up with a token love interest, the pacing is trapped on the ‘sprint’ setting; some plot details become lost in the blur (such as how, in an early scene, Quintus escapes his captors).
There is, however, no faulting Marshall’s star casting. As the appropriately named Virilus, West has a ball channelling all the irreverent bravado that made his McNulty one of The Wire’s best characters: “When will people learn not to fuck with the Ninth?” he sighs at one point. Fassbender, meanwhile, brings Quintus essential poise and flinty purpose. It’s going too far to say this role could do for him what Maximus did for Russell Crowe but, if nothing else, Centurion should prove to those who put up tentpoles that Fassbender certainly has what it takes to lead a major action picture.
A gritty, brutal chase movie that’s more about swords (and spears, and axes) than sandals — although it could have done with a lot more character-meat on those bones.