Those Romans in the second century sure were a surly bunch. And what pottymouths! If you didn't know any better, you'd have thought they invented the word "fuck" and its many uses.
|Centurion | Written and Directed by Neil Marshall | With Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Noel Clarke, David Morrissey, JJ Feild, Axelle Carolyn, and Imogen Poots | Magnolia Studios | 97 minutes|
That's but one of the anachronistic pleasures of British director Neil Marshall's screenplay for this slimly budgeted epic involving a splinter group of Roman soldiers battling for their lives behind enemy lines in AD 117. Marshall's excessively violent tale is concerned with the Empire's "farthest, most untamed frontier" — which would be Northern Britain, colorfully described here as "the asshole of the world" (or, in Latin, "anus orbis terrarum
This is an age when the Roman army was encountering fierce resistance from the Picts. These natives — who seem to have borrowed the Road Warrior wardrobes of Marshall's raging lunatics in his equally enjoyable 2008 B-movie, Doomsday (gotta stretch that budget somehow) — employ guerrilla tactics and exploit the unforgiving landscape to ruthless advantage, halting the Roman advance and producing a deadlock that's lasted for almost 20 years when the movie's bloody action kicks off.
And the action keeps on kicking, hacking, slashing, burning, and — especially — spurting for a fast-paced 97 minutes. It's all set in motion when Rome orders General Titus Virilus (Dominic West, previously seen brandishing a sword in 300) to end the stalemate "by any means necessary." That would include hiring the mute, feral tracker named Etain (Quantum of Solace's Olga Kurylenko), a duplicitous, deadly, beautiful Pict whose tongue was trimmed by the Romans some years earlier. Probably not the best person to aid in this last-ditch effort, but at least she won't talk back. Instead, she'll silence many Romans herself with her precision throat slashing. Then she'll rejoin the pesky Picts, whose leader, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), gets really pissed when his young son (Ryan Atkinson) is caught in the crossfire.
Yes, this is a revenge picture, and an extremely peculiar one. Are we to root for the persecuted Picts, who have a lot to get even for? Or with the centurion of the title, Quintus Dias (Inglourious Basterds' Michael Fassbender, also a veteran of 300), who takes over as leader of what's left of the Ninth Legion when the division is decimated in a fiery Pict trap? Quintus must also rescue Titus, who was captured in that disaster and has been taken to the Picts' fortified forest encampment to be tortured.
And oh, what torture! As Marshall showed in his Night of the Living Dead–inspired werewolf romp, Dog Soldiers, and his spelunker's nightmare, The Descent, he has not only a knack for stretching dollars but also a gleeful talent for gore. It makes sense that he's married to special-make-up-effects artist/actress Axelle Carolyn, who appears here as a gorgeous Pict archer.
Who to root for? In the end, that ambivalence is part of the fun. Even if the film is more concerned with action than with historical fact (love those Romans' colorful . . . English?), you still surrender to Marshall's gleeful orgy of violence, which is let down by only a half-hearted stab at romance. Still, it should come as little surprise that the centurion's love interest (Imogen Poots) is, well, a witch.