Though set in Roman times, it would be a stretch to call Centurion a sword-and-sandals epic. For one thing, it's set in the Scottish Highlands where the damp and biting wind makes fully waterproof leather boots a necessity, and the battle for freedom is a personal rather than momentous one. Michael Fassbender makes a strong lead after his award-winning turn in Hunger (and a supporting role in Inglorious Basterds) to play Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier literally running for his life behind enemy lines, but he may as well be running around in circles.
Quintus is the only man to walk away from a devastating attack on a Roman fort which is perpetrated by the Picts, a tribal people native to this cold and inhospitable land. He proceeds to sprint bare-chested over the hills, bleeding from a knife wound until he comes upon the celebrated Ninth Legion led by trash-talking General Virilus. Dominic West (of The Wire) laughs it up in that role - until he's killed, that is. It's the Pictus who silence him along with the vast majority of his A-grade soldiers. That happens early on in the story and feels all the more shocking because of it.
Life is as cheap as you'll find it in any low-budget horror film and that mightn't be surprising since this is directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers). He employs many tricks of that trade, including bloody torture scenes and ideas for things to do with a pointy stick. He does show some mercy with graphic scenes and the camaraderie between the few surviving members of the Ninth Legion helps soften those sharp edges a tad. Quintus becomes leader of this pack, which features Noel Clarke as an ex-marathon runner (handy), Riz Ahmed (aka Shifty) as the cook with mad knife skills (even handier) and David Morrissey as the quiet and deadly Bothos. He's arguably a little too quiet; almost disappearing into the background.
The men scale the peaks to find safe ground and Marshall makes sure to capture the raw, rugged beauty of the Highlands as they go. Never too far behind them is erstwhile Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) playing a tracker with a nose for blood and a hairstyle to suggest that she might be the lost member of Banarama, except that she's mute. In fact, she seems less than human, more lycanthrope (she's actually compared to a wolf more than once), but again, this feels like an incongruous scare tactic on Marshall's part. And, in truth, she isn't that scary. Quintus, with a group of highly trained soldiers on his side, could probably dispense with her and her gang quite easily, but he still keeps running.
Soon, the action begins to feel monotonous and Marshall's answer is to pick off more victims, then give Quintus a pit stop at the isolated home of a reputed witch (Imogen Poots). She also happens to be very beautiful and the pace almost grinds to a halt as they gaze wistfully at each other, knowing their days are numbered. Meanwhile, the relationships between the men suffer. Marshall promises much in early scenes when Quintas is suddenly thrust into the position of having to earn their trust, but this becomes an afterthought later on. All sense of brotherhood is lost by the time they face the Picts and a last-minute twist kills any last trace of credibility.
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