“Centurion” begins with the image of a man. Stripped bare to the waist, bloodied, hands still bound, he’s stumbling across a vast snowfield, trying to outrun pursuers who will kill him if the cold doesn’t get him first. It’s an apt opening salvo for this fast-moving, epic-on-a-shoestring tale of one Roman soldier’s fight that is by turns heroic, fearsome, funny, fateful and, oh, so brutal, with swords hacking off heads at every turn.
Michael Fassbender stars as Quintus, the son of a legendary gladiator and the man on the move, but as we soon learn it will be a bloody long time before he catches a breath (bloody being the operative word). The wintry and unforgiving Scottish highland is the staging ground for this battle to the death, where guerrilla warfare waged by the indigenous Pict tribe, in their animal skins and ritualistic mud-caked hair, has managed to confound the great Roman army.
What unfolds next is a classic case of a conqueror forced to examine his marching orders and his conscience as he faces down an enemy who refuses to surrender. The film is loosely based on Rome’s 9th Legion that went missing in the Scottish mists in the 2nd century. Writer-director Neil Marshall has stepped into that fog, imagining a righteous, rowdy, raucous answer and has sent a lot of body parts flying in the process.
Going back to ancient history seems a clever way for Marshall to move beyond the intelligent horror thriller that has been the British director’s bread and butter. But then, Marshall’s work has hinted at something more. He’s shown a good ear for people-in-crisis dialogue that doesn’t descend into the overly cheesy, with “The Descent” among his best. “Centurion” plays off that strength with an uncannily good narrative that manages to freshen up old soldiering tropes by playing around with the best, and worst, of human nature.
Helping greatly is a strong acting ensemble with Fassbender joined by Dominic West (“The Wire,” “28 Days”), excellent as an audacious Roman general that Quintus soon joins ranks with, and a raging mute Pict warrior princess, Etain ( Olga Kurylenko), as an undercover agent who could be the Romans’ savior or their undoing.
As is the case in all wars, it comes down to individual stories, of the men and, in the case of the Picts, women, who fight, and the lives — innocent and not — that are lost. Without the scale (or the budget, a modest $10 million) of a “Gladiator,” the filmmaker is betting on the relative novelty of the story. Like “King Arthur,” with Clive Owen, “Centurion” takes a cut at the difficulties the Romans faced in a cold country — hostiles behind every tree picking off soldiers unprepared for trench warfare, unable to weather frigid climes. (Of course, the Romans did ultimately figure it out.)
There are ambushes, flaming arrows and huge rolling fireballs bringing death and disaster, but none of the arena fights or massive fields of combat that usually come with Roman epics. Instead the filmmaker counts on a handful of rich characters to carry the day, with Quintus at the core. Fassbender is a chameleon of an actor who suffuses his leading men with great character traits. As Quintus, he plays broad in the big scenes and is movingly specific in the small ones — an outsider who never aimed to lead, yet picking up the mantle when it’s called for, he’s the kind of hero we look for in movies like this.
Enemies come mostly on horseback — and so does much of the action — a lot of close-quarters fights with lances and long knives. Philosophical musings about war are handled agilely enough to add some substance. For humor, there are the absurdities and ironies of warAnd for pure comic relief there is an arm wrestling contest gone terribly wrong and all those severed heads.
All in all, an old-fashioned swords and sandals saga that may be small in scale but is a lot of bloody fun.