Tacitus and Xenophon are among the inspirations for Centurion, a bloody anecdote from the Roman Empire's failed attempt to subdue what is now Scotland. But historical purists are unlikely to think much of this headlong movie, which is more concerned with action than with thought.
Essentially a 90-minute chase sequence, Centurion follows Quintus Dias (Hunger's Michael Fassbender) as he attempts to lead the remains of a Roman legion to safety. The casualties are heavy, in part because of the feral skills of "she-wolf" Etain (Quantum of Solace's Olga Kurylenko), a mute tracker in furs and raccoon-style eye makeup.
Quintus is introduced running though snowy Scottish mountains, escaping the people the Romans called "Picts." (Those Celtic warriors drew blue pictographs on their skin, a custom Braveheart imagined was still current a millennium later.) A few scenes later, Quintus tries and fails to rescue a Roman general (Dominic West) from his captors; he then leads a few survivors on a roundabout trek to the nearest Roman garrison. Arrows, battle-axes, wolves and traitors significantly thin the soldiers' numbers as they flee.
Writer-director Neil Marshall is best known for the horror movie The Descent, and Centurion is something of a slasher flick. Blood gushes, heads tumble free, and spears go right through torsos. The British movie is being released in the U.S. as part of the "6-Shooter Film Series" that also includes June's underwhelming Jonah Hex, and the two movies share a preference for visceral sensation over narrative sense.
Following 2004's King Arthur and this year's Robin Hood into the thickets of British pre-history, Centurion roots for Quintus, but not so much for the empire he serves. At first, the Romans appear to be the good guys: They speak English and are multiculti, with recruits from Greece, Africa and the "Hindu Kush." They also seem to have read the latest news from that last land, now known as Afghanistan: "This is a new kind of war," they grouse of their counterinsurgency against the unruly Brits, who speak Gaelic. (It's more likely that their language was a form of proto-Welsh.)
Ultimately, Quintus finds himself without allies, a lone Roman whose best hope is a lone Celt, Arianne (Imogen Poots). She's a pretty blond witch exiled from her people for reasons that -- like so much in this movie -- are not entirely clear. The mist that wafts through the movie's blue-tinted valleys and peaks also sometimes obscures the script.
Centurion was inspired in part by the Roman army's "lost" Ninth Legion, once thought to have been annihilated by feisty Celts; most historians now think the legion was simply redeployed. But Marshall has also acknowledged the influence of The Warriors, the dynamic 1979 Walter Hill movie that transplanted Xenophon's Anabasis to youth-gang New York.
Marshall's affection for The Warriors may explain Centurion's dialogue, which mixes contemporary street slang with flowery platitudes that might have been written for Errol Flynn. The director probably should have heeded his own characters' four-letter-word outbursts and set the story in modern times. Because in the end, the movie's historical backdrops are just a distraction from its essential business: running, bleeding, killing and dying.