Director Neil Marshall must have watched movies like “Gladiator” and thought, I’d love to make an epic like that.
And, of course, bring all the blood and entrails he splashed across the scene in his signature hit, “The Descent.”
“Centurion,” playing in theaters nationwide as well as via Video on Demand services, is like Roman history written with red ink.
The film doesn’t feature battle sequences – they’re like Anatomy & Physiology courses for the laymen.
In between, Marshall tells a crisply efficient story but gets bogged down in a saga without a moral compass.
Michael Fassbender stars as Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier fleeing from the guerilla armies he’s meant to eradicate. Seems the Roman Empire of the era just wasn’t big enough, so it’s spent the last 20 years trying to wipe out a hearty band known as the Picts.
But those Picts know how to draw the enemy out and beat them soundly time and again, one reason why Quintus is seen in full retreat as the movie opens. He eventually teams up with a Roman regiment lead by a fiery general (Dominic West).
The Romans get their clocks cleaned during one well staged ambush, leaving Quintus and a few other stragglers alive and the general in the enemy’s hands. So Quintus leads a rescue mission to save the general, but he’ll have to maneuver behind enemy lines to do so.
“Centurion” offers a bloody good fight scene every 15 or so minutes, shrewdly coordinated battles that don’t rely on quick camera cuts or other annoying tics. That’s great, but it’s really just to show us the limbs being lopped off by those sharp axe blades. This might be the bloodiest Roman epic ever told, and while it can lead to some visceral stirring sequences the overall impact soon grows tired.
There are shades of political commentary if you go searching for them, what with talk of endless wars and an imperial nation going where it doesn’t belong. But given the spirit of the enterprise it’s hard to see Marshall as having an axe to grind. He’d rather plunge said axe into a soldier’s head and zoom in for a close up.
“Centurion” is ultimately an anti war film, a look at the folly of armed conflict. That message comes out in a drip, drip drip approach that coalesces during the film’s waning moments.
The story unfolds in variations of gun-metal gray, the preferred palette for medieval fare, and some sweeping camera moves imply an epic is being told. But the dialogue is both banal and blistering – blame HBO’s “Deadwood” for spiking genre fare with thoroughly modern cuss words.
Fassbender is a mesmerizing actor, and he needs to be since his role here is hardly an actor’s paradise. Marshall had much better luck giving us heroines to cheer on in “The Descent.” Here, the collective bravery of Quintus’ men is the main character.
“Centurion” is muscular and unrelenting, a film that thinks character development is for sissies and would rather get on to the next series of mutilations.
(Photo: Michael Fassbender plays a Roman soldier on the run in “Centurion.”)