Centurion

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

“This place is the arsehole of the world.” Such is a Roman’s unflattering appraisal of the barbaric country that’ll one day be Scotland, still holding out against Emperor Hadrian. Romans go in; the savages put them through the meatgrinder. It’s the set-up for Centurion, Neil Marshall’s latest, following on from Dog Soldiers (soldiers besieged by werewolves), The Descent (tough-girl potholers versus carnivore Gollums) and Doomsday (Marshall’s guiltily enjoyable romp through a Scotland of cannibal wackoes).

The plot’s as simple as you’d expect, but with undertones that should occupy anyone doing a thesis on Marshall’s colourful oeuvre. Michael Fassbender, fresh from Inglourious Basterds, is Qunitus, a soldier captured and tortured by the woad-daubed Picts. He’s saved by the forces of hard-ass General Virilus (The Wire’s Dominic West), who’s leading his Ninth Legion against the Pict leader Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen). Before long, Virilus’s legion is resting in pieces and Quintus and a small band of survivors, including such familiar faces as David Morrissey and Noel Clarke, are running like the clappers over snowcapped mountains, jumping down waterfalls and so forth.

It’s good – not quite The Descent, but a convincing return to form for Marshall after Doomsday. The violence is as bloody and crunchy as the director’s fans could wish for (gaping neck wounds a speciality). The production could never be mistaken for a Spartacus or a Gladiator, but it’s impressive enough. The big Roman-versus-Pict battle, where the Picts send giant fireballs hurtling against the Romans’ shields, is a palpable hit, and the Highland backdrops for the later chases are suitably grandiose. I didn’t get a handle on the smaller characters, at least not on first viewing, but their soldiers’ manly brotherhood comes over, though there are bad apples in the ranks.

It’s impossible not to see contemporary parallels – an army from a world superpower in an inhospitable country, fighting an unwinnable war against terrifying resistance – but Marshall never forces them, only reminding us the Romans have committed their own atrocities and the Pict “villains” have impeccable reasons to hate them. (Although this is a male-heavy film, Marshall extends the “female is deadlier” line from The Descent, with Axelle Carolyn doing well as a vengeful she-wolf huntress.) A late shift to a slower pace and a romantic subplot feels a tad disappointing, though by no means disastrous. The other quibble is with Fassbender’s portentous voiceover, which you soon start wanting to turn off.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.