Dir. Neil Marshall
(2010, R, 97 min)
★ ★

The first thing you notice about Centurion is how violent it is. Really violent. Many action and adventure films include a fair amount of bloodletting, but this film makes such a special point of it, places such absurd visual emphasis on blood spurts, impaling, and dismemberment, that it plays like a parody of a Quentin Tarantino film, which are often parodies of themselves, and that’s at least one layer of parody too many. Some heads are not only chopped off, they’re chopped clean in half, and one soldier, screaming as he’s ambushed by the enemy, catches a spear in his mouth. There are magicians who catch bullets that way; he should have trained with one of them.

Olga Kurylenko, as Etain

Written and directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent), the film can’t be taken seriously, and for a while that’s just fine. I enjoyed its earnest sword-and-sandal pageantry as camp, giggled at its overripe dialogue and its scowling, bellowing performances. It plays like 300 but not putting on airs; instead of sterile, soulless CGI backdrops, it’s filmed in actual locations and photographed with much skill by Sam McCurdy. But even at only 97 minutes it wears thin. As it develops into a chase film, the fun begins to dissipate.

Its minimal plot involves a Roman centurion named Quintus Dias, who is stationed in Northern England when local tribes known as the Picts attack his outpost. He is the only survivor, taken as a hostage because he speaks their language, but he escapes their custody and stumbles along the Ninth Legion led by General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West). He joins their ranks and gets ambushed again. (One Pictish massacre is bad luck. Two Pictish massacres and you start to wonder if maybe it’s you.)

The General is captured by the enemy, and the few surviving Romans embark on a rescue mission, which turns into a running-away mission. That’s all there is of story. The rest of the film plays out as a sequence of skirmish, run, hide, skirmish, run, hide. Eventually Quintus says, “I’m tired of running,” but it’s the screenplay that has run out of places to go. The characters are all ciphers, including the principal villain, a treacherous female Pict tracker (Olga Kurylenko) who doesn’t speak because her tongue was cut out when she was a child, all the better so that Marshall doesn’t have to think of anything for her to say. Tacked awkwardly onto the back half of the film is an obligatory love interest – an exiled Pict woman named Arianne (Imogen Poots) – and neither she nor Quintus is too grimy or battle-scarred to recognize how ridiculously attractive they both are; Arianne was banished for witchcraft … or maybe it’s Maybelline.