Britain, A.D. 117. Quintus Dias, the sole survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman frontier fort, marches north with General Virilus' legendary Ninth Legion, under orders to wipe the Picts from the face of the Earth and destroy their leader, Gorlacon.

Mindless mayhem in ancient Britain.

Writer-director Neil Marshall describes his survival thriller as a homage to John Ford’s classic Westerns in the spirit of chase movies such as Deliverance, The Last of the Mohicans and Apocalpyto.

Get real, Neil! Centurion lacks several vital ingredients that were prevalent in those movies, namely intelligence, strongly-drawn characters, tension and a coherent plot.

His saga, which substitutes the Romans for Ford’s cavalry and a warrior breed known as the Picts for the Indians, is 97 long minutes of mindless mayhem and boredom, drenched (according to the production notes) in about 175 litres of fake blood. Released on 102 screens in the UK in April by Warner Bros. (what were they thinking?), the film was a disaster, and there’s no reason to think its fate will be any different here.

The big mystery, apart from how the producers managed to enlist the support of WB, the UK Film Council and Pathe, is why some of Britain’s classiest actors signed up for this misbegotten exercise. Most hadn’t made an action movie before but this was scant reason for Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, David Morrissey and Liam Cunningham to get very dirty, wet and cold as their characters plough through icy rivers and mud, or to utter dopey dialogue. Bond girl Olga Kurylenko also shows up but mercifully her evil version of Xena Warrior Princess is mute, having had her tongue cut out.

Set in 117 AD, the film opens with a half-naked, bloodied man stumbling through the snow. He’s Quintus Dias (Fassbender), a centurion in the Roman Army who was captured by the Picts after the legion is all but wiped out by fireballs, axes and swords. Quintus and six fellow survivors (including Morrissey and Cunningham) escape and set out to free their General (West).

They’re pursued by the Picts led by the fierce Etain (Kurylenko). Each character is given a two-paragraph back story. Etain’s thirst for vengeance is explained by her having watched as her mother was raped and her father’s eyes were burnt out, before she herself was raped and had her tongue cut out.

The action scenes are relentlessly gory but unexciting, and the dialogue is so bad or banal it’s almost laughable, with leaden lines such as 'This is truly the asshole of the world" and 'I am a soldier of Rome, I will not yield." Hearing guys in ancient Britain use words such as 'fuck,’ 'cock’ and 'shithouse’ is about as believable as Etain’s lipstick and mascara.

Towards the end, it seems brave Quintus will reach the safety of the Roman frontier but he then has to worry about the enemy within. There’s a half-hearted romance with a kindly Pict woman, which allows Quintus to show his warm, sensitive side.

Sam McCurdy’s photography is often murky and washed-out, which befits a grubby story. This is another classic case of the perils of giving free rein to a writer/director: Marshall the director obviously couldn’t tell Marshall the writer that his script is rubbish.

After directing Dog Soldiers and The Descent, Marshall was hailed in some quarters as the wunderkind of British horror. Then he blotted his copybook with the futuristic thriller Doomsday. Centurion is another backward step.


In Cinemas 29 July 2010,
Thu, 12/02/2010 - 11