the Roman Empire. The stories of Roman soldiers conquering the world one battle after another lends well to the big screen, especially stories of the fighting in Britannia with films like King Arthur, The Eagle, The Last Legion, and 2010's Centurion.
Stationed at a remote Roman garrison in Britannia, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the lone survivor of a vicious Picts attack and taken prisoner. Brutally beaten, Quintus manages to escape and is rescued by the nearby Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (Dominic West). The Ninth has been tasked with wiping out the warring Picts, but instead, they become the target. Betrayed by their mute scout, Etain (Olga Kurylenko), the Ninth is almost completely annihilated. Virilus is captured while Quintus is one of the few survivors. Trapped far into enemy territory, Quintus and a group of just six survivors must find a way to get back to safety at the nearest Roman garrison. As they race for help though, Etain is not far behind with a squad of Pict warriors ready to kill all of them.
Okay, here goes. Medieval times were all sorts of nasty, especially when it comes to violence. Swords, knives, all sorts of blades and blunt instruments, those weapons will do plenty of damage to the human body. Directing this Roman Empire epic (and writing too), Neil Marshall plays up the violence quota. The problem is that in its epic graphic quality, it comes across as cartoonish. It's in the vein of 300, but without that graphic novel quality. The blood splatter looks ridiculous, and the violence becomes tedious almost immediately. How many times can you see a knife/sword/arrow impale itself in someone's face/eye/throat before it becomes numbingly painful to watch? It took me one fight scene when a Roman soldier takes a spear to the crotch. Oh, by the way, that gimmick is used again later. Making it worse, the editing is so quick that it becomes a blur of bloody, indecipherable body parts being hacked away.
So snowballing off the violence angle, the issue comes from the pacing in an already pretty brisk 97-minutes running time. In the first 50 minutes, Quintus is caught, beaten, escapes, joins the Ninth, watches the Ninth get annihilated, and then runs for his life with the six other survivors. The frenetic pacing is insanely uninteresting as we see repetitious shots of the seven -- strung out in a single-file line -- sprinting across the Britannic landscape to composer Ilan Eshkeri's booming, dramatic score. Cut to Etain and her warriors prodding their horses on fast in pursuit. A survivalist story set in the 2nd Century Roman times should be interesting, but it isn't. Thankfully, the story slows down a bit in the second and figures out a better way to go as Quintus and his dwindling survivors meet Arianne (Imogen Poots), a young Britannic woman banished from a Pict village now living in the woods. The finale especially works, delivering some surprising twists and a worthwhile final scene that plays on Quintus' earlier narration.
I wish I liked this movie more. The basic premise of the story is ripe with potential. Think The Lost Patrol meets Gladitator meets The Magnificent Seven. Providing the narration, Fassbender delivers a fine lead performance. He's the Everyman, a common soldier thrust into an unlikely heroic position. A rising star, it's another strong part for Fassbender. Quintus' survivors include Bothos (David Morrisey), the Roman officer, Thax (J.J. Feild), the me-first troublemaker, Brick (Liam Cunningham), the veteran on his last campaign, Macros (Noel Clarke), the African fighting with the Romans, Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), the Greek refugee who joined the Legions, and Tarak (Riz Ahmed), the knife-wielding cook. Lots of different backgrounds, and some very cool characters, but they're not given enough to do. Surprise, surprise, when they start getting picked off by the Picts, it's far from emotionally or dramatic moments.
As for the villains, there's good and bad. Kurylenko as the mute Britannic tracker, Etain, is a gem. With war paint covering her face and hair standing on end with all sorts of flowing robes and animal furs, she's a vision of anger and violence, providing quite the counterpart to the Roman survivors. Her one-on-one fight scene with West's General Virilus is a gem too. The Pict leader, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), is just the opposite. He's not imposing or intimidating and basically disappears halfway through the movie. So overall, I can't completely rip the movie, but I can't completely recommend it either. Instead, it falls somewhere in between unfortunately.
Centurion (2010): ** 1/2 /****