Rule No. 1: Never piss off the fortress wall at night when the enemy is armed with spears and tends to strike under cover of darkness. As an opening salvo, Neil Marshall’s survivalist war odyssey Centurion shows the gruesome result of breaking this rule, then proceeds on a relentless barrage of stabbings, disembowelments, and heads giving way with the suppleness of rotten cantaloupes. Like 300 and the recent Valhalla Rising, the film seeks to underline the brute masculinity of warriors from a millennia or two ago, in this case a group of Ninth Legion Roman soldiers in A.D. 117 who get penned in by the savage Picts of northern Britain. It also seizes on a sound allegory for the war in Afghanistan, as the Roman Empire, so expansive and dominant, winds up stuck in a quagmire against guerrilla fighters in an unforgiving terrain. But over time, Marshall’s interest in period brutality becomes a grinding obsession.
The excellent Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) stars as Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier who’s the sole survivor of a Pict raid on a frontier fort. Ordered to proceed north and wipe out the Pict leader (Ulrich Thomsen), Quintus hooks up with the Ninth Legion under General Virilus (Dominic West, of 300 and The Wire), but a devastating ambush kills nearly all of their 3,000 troops. Stuck in enemy territory, Quintus, Virilus, and a handful of others attempt to retreat through forests and mountains to get back to the Roman frontier, but they’re trailed by relentless Pict warriors, led by Olga Kurylenko’s mute, revenge-hungry tracker.
Much like Marshall’s superior horror movie The Descent, Centurion follows a group of characters trapped in a hellish no-man’s land, doing whatever’s necessary to survive. And though it confirms Marshall as a skilled director of hard-hitting action sequences, Centurion offers little beyond viscera for its own sake, without anything like the bold abstraction of Valhalla Rising. Before long, Marshall loses interest in the Ninth Legion as Afghanistan metaphor (at one point, Pict territory is called a “graveyard of ambition”), and the addition of a sympathetic local (Imogen Poots) with eyes for Quintus pushes the film deeper into conventionality. The warriors in Centurion follow an unusually bloody path, but it’s a path already well-trod.