CENTURION mixes a thoroughly honorable high-mindedness with frequent and jarring examples of torture porn. While the ethics of using human beings as pawns in political games is the central theme of the story, the execution is less than astute. What may have aspired to be an intelligent action flick is instead a standard chase flick with interesting observations on the use of woad by the ancient Britons, and far too few philosophical interludes of any substance.
It begins with the eponymous Roman soldier, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), bleeding, half-naked, and exhausted running through the snows of Britain, escaping, we learn, from the vicious Pict tribe who wiped out his garrison. It was a dastardly guerilla attack at night and without honor, but highly effective, used as part of the continuing non-diplomatic protest of Roman occupation of Britain back in the second century AD. The complete rout is an embarrassment for Roman governor (Andreas Wisniewski) and his political minions, and so the Ninth Legion is sent to teach the Picts a lesson they won’t soon forget. Never mind that Virilius (Dominic West), the Ninth’s garrulous general at first refuses a mission that he knows will accomplish nothing except the waste more Roman lives. He, like the politicians, know that the occupation is a disaster and though the word from Rome is to quash the locals by any means necessary, the soldiers on the ground understand the futility in ways that not even the local government types can. Or won’t.
Honor being honor, though, and the code of Roman military discipline being free with corporal punishment and worse, Virilius marches north to avenge the fallen, and Dias is at his side. So is Etain (Olga Kurylenko, who is a ringer for Catharine Zeta-Jones), the Pictish warrioress with no tongue but sporting a feral look in her eyes, and a mastery of weaponry that is better than most soldiers. She’s also a tracker willing to lead the Ninth Legion to Gorlacon (Ulrich Thompsen), the Pict king responsible for the massacre of Dias garrison.
Most of the screen time is spent with Dias and five comrades running across the countryside, desperately trying to lose the murderous Picts who remain on their heels and who don’t seem quite human bounding along on their horses without seeming to break a sweat. There is time for a little backstory. There is time for a little bonding. There is time spent exploring their mulitculturalism (African, Greek, Syrian, son of a freed gladiator), though there is little else to distinguish the one soldier from another aside from height, width, and the cook that is tossed in with them. There is plenty more time for dismemberments, gougings, eviscerations, assorted lacerations, and other assorted maimings on which the camera lingers with obvious affection. Though the energy level of the participants is high while battle is being waged, there is an odd overall hush on screen, punctuated by the sounds that the body makes as its being reformatted with extreme prejudice. At one point, there is an odd, if original, montage of nothing but punches landing on opponent’s faces, as though weapons weren’t personal enough.
The scenery is stupendous, full of rushing rivers, steep cliffs, and the wood primeval, all enveloped in a mist that hangs evocatively over the landscape. People are dwarfed by it all, and sometimes difficult to see even when the camera comes closer due to the dark muddiness of the cinematography used to evoke the dark doings on screen and off. The performances are passionate, particularly Kurylenk, who is a banshee, valkyrie, and virago rolled into one terrifying package that stares down the world with a gaze that might very well, under the right circumstances, turn lesser beings to stone and make them grateful that this was the worst that happened to them. As for the plot, it’s an excuse to tear people limb from limb and make a political point or two as an afterthought.
If the archaic form of waterboarding depicted may or may not be historically accurate, it is, nonetheless true to the spirit of the times and of the emotions involved on all sides. CENTURION is mud, blood, and gruesome death. Good men die and bad men do, too, because politicians overrule generals and both contribute to making terrorists out of the locals. The messy business of occupying a country determined not to be subjugated is meant to transcend the particular time and place and does without being too heavy-handed in its message, only its delivery.