A raggedy band of second-century Roman soldiers scramble to escape revenge-bent Pict warriors in ancient Blighty in the rousing if slightly predictable chase drama “Centurion.” Working with a heftier budget than he had for his last, “Doomsday,” horror-trained British helmer Neil Marshall flexes strong action muscles and carves copious flesh here, creating the sort of broadsword-based bedlam that will thrill fans of ancient martial movies. Nevertheless, macho pic may lack the sort of cross-quadrant appeal that made Marshall’s all-femme ensembler “The Descent” a sleeper hit. Good word-of-mouth will be needed to build an empire of followers.
After a flashforward preamble that sees protagonist Quintus Dias (played by a chiseled Michael Fassbender) stumbling half-naked through the snow, it’s established that action unfolds in 117 A.D., on the very edge of the Roman Empire, in what’s now Scotland. Like many a superpower that would follow in Rome’s footsteps, the would-be continental conquerors are finding it hard work vanquishing the local barbarian horde, in this instance the Picts. Using guerrilla tactics, these fierce warriors bedevil the Roman legions with constant raids on the Romans’ forts, one of which wipes out Quintus’ cohort.
For unexplained reasons, Quintus can speak Pictish (per press notes, subtitled dialogue for these scenes is actually Scots Gaelic, since little is known about the real Pictish language), so he’s taken prisoner instead of slain. A skirmish with the Roman Army’s Ninth Legion liberates Quintus, who joins forces with his countrymen, led by roistering Gen. Titus Virilus (Dominic West, whose character name here is just a bit too on the nose, recalling the joke pseudo-Latin monikers used in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and the “Asterix” comics).
To help them find the Picts’ leader, Gorlacon (Danish thesp Ulrich Thomsen), the Ninth are using mute Pict woman Etain (Olga Kurylenko, “Quantum of Solace”). But she turns out to be a double agent who leads the Ninth into a trap, resulting in the near-total slaughter of the legion and Virilus’ capture.
Only Quintus and a handful of men survive, including sturdy Bothos (David Morrissey); cheeky Thax (J.J. Feild); middle-aged Brick (Liam Cunningham), who was, naturally, just about to retire; fleet-footed African Macros (Noel Clarke); killer-shot Greek Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas); and cook Tarak (Riz Ahmed), from the Hindu Kush. From this point on, plot adheres to a standard chase/horror-movie template as the Romans are picked off by the Pict hunters. Thankfully, Marshall is inventive when it comes to killing characters, deploying just about every weapon in the ancient-world arsenal as well as wolves. Only a few stopoffs for bantering and backstory revelations, and an interlude at the home of an ostracized Pict woman (Imogen Poots) provide breathers from the relentless, sharply cut action sequences.
As popcorn entertainment, the pic delivers well enough, and thesps rise more than adequately to the demands of their roles, apart from Kurylenko, who looks too spindly to convince as the ferocious woman warrior she’s meant to be. An extra dimension or two in the script would have done no harm, and while “Centurion” serves well as an old-school thrill ride, it lacks the poignancy of “Gladiator” or the CGI dazzle of “300.” However accurate the costumes and production design details might be here, “Centurion” never quite evokes a sense of antiquity; its core plot could be happening at any time. It will be interesting to see what the more cerebral helmer Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) does with “The Eagle of the Ninth,” which also explores the fate of the Roman Ninth Legion.
Craft contributions are strong, especially lenser Sam McCurdy’s high-speed interludes and color-drained palette that makes the copious quantities of blood look practically inky. Helicopter shots show off the exquisitely austere Scottish landscapes used to their best advantage. Pace and running time are just right.