Imagine a flick like Braveheart, 300, Gladiator, or King Arthur, only those films have just been stripped of all those boring scenes about kings and princes, peasants and slaves, taxes and trades, and all that jazz. The result would be a movie that looks a lot like Neil Marshall's Centurion, a fast-paced, visually stunning, and action-heavy period piece that focuses on what matters most in a Saturday afternoon matinee: the good stuff. Boasting nary a subplot or an extraneous character to deal with, Centurion seems fully intent on delivering an old-school action adventure that tickles the eye without taxing the brain. And it succeeds on all counts.
It's the story of Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), a trusted officer in the Roman army. Following a brutal attack by the barbaric Picts (ancient Scots are what they are, I do believe), Quintus finds himself stuck deep inside an enemy village -- but not for long. Quintus' escape is aided by the last few survivors of the legendary Ninth Legion, and together the small band of soldiers must make their way to a friendly border. Not only do they have a long way to go, but they also have on their tails a tenacious group of Pict trackers, which is led by the ferociously unwavering Etain (Olga Kurylenko).
So that's it! A brief bit of monumental mayhem to kick-start the tale, just enough set-up to keep the main characters interesting, and a whole lot of escapes, chases, sword-fights, and flying arrows. (To those who may be unfamiliar with Marshall's previous films, I can warn you that Centurion is a rousingly gory affair. Those with an aversion to physical nastiness should look elsewhere.) Of course Centurion does slow down often enough to offer a few colorful character moments, but it never cuts away to a bunch of guys talking about the action from 500 miles away. This gives the flick a welcome sense of urgency; Marshall does a fine job of illustrating precisely how ruthless the "evil" Picts truly are. Even our hero and a captured Roman general (the always fun Dominic West) have no problem admitting that they're well outmatched and deep behind enemy lines.
Ever the genre fan, Marshall punctuates his action scenes with explosive geysers of blood, set against an ironically beautiful background, and with an impressive amount of attention paid to editing, timing, and orchestrating the action to its maximum effect. (There's a great sequence best described as "a chase up a mountain.") Aside from Fassbender and Liam Cunningham as a gruff veteran soldier, the five other survivors are a fairly interchangeable troop, but we're not exactly talking about a dramatic ensemble piece here; the Roman guys are suitably heroic, even if they're not exactly as colorful as a "dirty half dozen" might have been.
Michael Fassbender, however, does deliver an enjoyably effective lead hero. Not nearly as gruff and commanding as the heroes found in 300 or Gladiator, Fassbender's Quintus Dias is instead a quietly confident warrior. His butt-kicking abilities and leadership skills are undeniably evident, but his calm exterior is that of a soldier fighting to stay alive, and not one who craves an extra battle or two. Ms. Kurylenko is also quite entertaining as the inescapable tracker / warrior woman known as Etain. She has no dialogue whatsoever, but the actress has no problem conveying an insidious sense of menace. In fact, I'd say Etain is one of the coolest female movie villains we've seen in quite some time.
Whether or not Centurion is an improvement over Marshall's earlier flicks is up to the Marshall fans to decide for themselves, but I applaud the director who is willing (nay, intent!) on attacking a new sub-genre each time he touches a camera. He's like the Danny Boyle of Saturday Afternoon Matinees, and after seeing him tackle warring werewolves, claustrophobic carnage, post-apocalyptic anarchy, and now some old-school "swords and sandals" craziness, I (as always) look forward to what the filmmaker concocts next.