In AD 117 the Roman Empire spanned territory from Egypt to Spain and as far as the Black Sea to the East.  In Northern Britain though, the Roman onslaught ground to a halt when it met an elusive enemy whose guerrilla tactics and surprise attacks made dominos of their rigid formations.  These were the savage tribes of the Picts.

Quintus (Michael Fassbender) is the sole survivor of a Pictish raid, the eponymous Centurion.  Son of a Gladiator, Quintus is a proud and passionate warrior, he marches North with General Virilus’ legendary Ninth Legion determined to avenge the slaying of his comrades.  The Ninth’s mission is to rid the land of the Picts and their leader Gorlacon.  But the legion is ambushed, the bulk of its men massacred, and General Virilus captured.  Quintus assumes command and leads a handful of soldiers across the unfamiliar terrain to recover their general and to return to the Roman frontier with their lives…

Neil Marshall has long been fascinated with the idea of telling the story of Hadrian’s Wall.  Having grown up at its Newcastle upon Tyne end and led years of his working life at its Cumbrian conclusion he spent hundreds of hours driving along the road beside the wall wondering what stories it could tell.  When he heard the legend of the Ninth Legion and their mysterious disappearance his writer’s mind began to fill in the gaps and conjure their fate.  The result was Centurion.

Speaking to his intentions and the question of modern parallels Marshall says:

“Primarily I wanted to tell a story about individuals, and it’s about this handful of guys who are fighting their way home.  It’s their story.  So I don’t necessarily want the audience to pick a side and choose what’s right or wrong.  It’s about individuals and you either root for those individuals or you don’t.  It’s much the same as any story really.”

On the page this sounds promising, creditable even.  I had never heard of the Ninth Legion and found the promise of an explanation of their vanishing intriguing.  Producer Robert Jones describes Centurion as a character-based chase movie in the spirit of Apocalypto, Southern Comfort and Last of the Mohicans.  Marshall himself intended something of an homage to the classic John Ford cavalry westerns and there are scenes where that intention is carried out to the letter.  As evidenced by his previous films, Dog Soldiers and The Descent in particular, Neil Marshall is expert in managing the exhilarating, heart stopping thrill of pursuit.  He is also peerless in his ability to create authentic camaraderie in his casts.  His deft, decisive, direction conducts the orchestra of departments flawlessly so that the physical environments of the sets and landscapes feel utterly believable and Centurion is no exception.

The mountains and valleys of Aviemore convey the breathtaking awe of the Scottish landscape in a way that all the pixel power of ILM never could and, while the makeup is excellent, the powder blue tinge of the actors’ skin is an authentic shade of half-frozen actor – Neil Marshall blue!  The hack and slash and chop of sword and axe are readily answered by the 200+ litres of blood Paul Hyett and his effects department splashed over the frozen ground.  The cast are, in the main, strong and Dominic West’s Virilus is particularly good value – a great booming caricature of a beloved general.  They were each called upon to fight, ride and climb in bitter conditions and it is to their credit that all are utterly believable in the hostile environment.  In that regard Centurion maintains perfect suspension of disbelief.  It looks at once of its place and time and thrillingly contemporary, recalling the clear aesthetic voice of Dante Spinotti’s Public Enemies.

Such a terrible pity then, that it’s not very good.

I believe the bones of an excellent story are here in the premise, however somewhere in the journey from page to screen or from film to edit they were lost.  Neil Marshall and his team set out to make an epic pursuit movie yet the plot wanders in a meandering figure of eight before it dares cut to that chase.  The Centurion hook necessitates an otherwise pointless narration which makes for a schizophrenic viewing experience as your loyalties are tossed from individual to band of brothers and back again.  I wonder if the mighty lure of Gladiator money influenced the decision to leave the title singular not plural.  Certainly it explains the tacked-on romance.  It is a pity because it’s such a waste of a jolly good idea.

For the sake of that idea I do think you should see Centurion.  For that reason it is worth it.  Do your best to bear with the first third, try not to snigger at the story of Olga Kurylenko’s Etain or flinch from the comedic expository dialogue and your commitment will pay off.  Beneath the unnecessary hook Neil Marshall has delivered all the elements of an entertaining action adventure.  And it almost works.

Did he fear comparison with the brutal simplicity of his previous work?  Is that why we have to smash through a Mille-feuille of saccharine cliché and plot device before we break through to the battered and bloodied heart?  I hope not.  Neil Marshall is an unusual talent with an undeniable skill for delivering a true white knuckle ride.  Because this film is not really about a Centurion and it’s not about a wall.  It’s about the thrill of battle, the fight for survival, the chase…

Centurion opens in the UK on Friday 23rd April

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Emily Breen began writing for HeyUGuys in 2009. She favours pretzels over popcorn and rarely watches trailers as she is working hard to overcome a compulsion to ‘solve’ plots. Her trusty top five films are: Betty Blue, The Red Shoes, The Princess Bride, The Age of Innocence and The Philadelphia Story. She is troubled by people who think Tom Hanks was in The Philadelphia Story and by other human beings existing when she is at the cinema.