If you thought "300" was one of the greatest films ever made, if slo-mo arrows piercing armored chests is your idea of a good time, by all means make haste to "Centurion."
Set in the 2nd-century Roman Empire, when men were men and launderettes were scarce, it's about a mud-caked band of Roman soldiers who are pursued across what is now Scotland by the local barbarian horde, the Picts. Given how scurvy they look, the Picts should have a scarier monicker. I felt the same way about the Sith in the "Star Wars" series.
Scariest of the Picts is Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a temptress in animal furs who works for the Romans only to reveal herself as a double agent and the deadliest of trackers. She's more she-wolf than wench. Because the Romans cut out her tongue years before, she's mute – not entirely a bad thing given the caliber of dialogue in this film.
Her opposite number is centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), a survivor of the Roman Ninth Legion, whom we first see in a flash-forward sprinting half-naked through snow. Fassbender clearly worked out for this role, and he wants us to know it. His Quintus can also speak perfect Pictish (which, according to the press notes, is actually Scots Gaelic). Speaking of press notes, I pass along a quote from the film's producer, Robert Jones, extolling its singular virtue: "Gore, a bit more gore, then a sprinkling of blood on top."
Actually, he's selling his film, which was directed by horror maven Neil Marshall ("The Descent"), a bit short. In some ways "Centurion" is closer to what its effects designer terms "a Roman 'Die Hard.' " It also, in some of its torture sequences, seems to be reaching for contemporary, war-on-terror relevance. This part I could have done without. When in Rome, let's not drag in Abu Ghraib.
"Centurion" is essentially a chase film, with Etain and company in pursuit of an ever-diminishing cadre of Roman warriors – including stalwart Bothos (David Morrissey) and goofy Thax (JJ Feild) – led by Quintus. Since Etain isn't exactly love-interest material, the filmmakers work in a witchy woman, Arianne (Imogen Poots), to do the honors. She's a banished Pict, hence a potential friend. It's amazing the lengths to which filmmakers will go to work a little nuzzling into a scenario that's about as potentially romantic as a sumo wrestling match.
Marshall is big on desaturated imagery, which imparts to the film's copious amounts of hemoglobin the look of squid ink. He also favors speeded-up helicopter shots of vast vistas and slow-motion carnage. He fetishizes violence, it's true – the close-ups of throat slashings and body piercings are almost abstractly rendered. But compared with, say, Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," which featured this sort of stuff in practically every frame, Marshall's film is downright Disneyish.
Kevin Macdonald, the director of "The Last King of Scotland," is soon coming out with "The Eagle of the Ninth," which also dramatizes the mysterious fate of the Roman Ninth Legion. The blood-bucket quotient, one hopes, will be lower. No word yet about the fate of the Picts. Grade: C+ (Rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, grisly images, and language.)
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