As pigtailed fatso Obelix was wont to say in the Asterix comic books, these Romans are crazy. And the doomed warriors of the Ninth legion probably had to be to march into Scotland in 117 AD, never (so the legend goes) to be seen again.
Later this year Kevin Macdonald will offer his idea of what happened in The Eagle Of The Ninth. Before that we have Centurion, a blood and thunder epic from Neil Dog Soldiers Marshall that employs this enduring mystery as the basis for a brutal survival thriller that replaces The Descent’s chicks with picks with Picts and conscripts.
As those films showed, Marshall is never happier than when following a dwindling band of heroes being picked off one by one by a savage superior force. Small wonder that, after a few large-scale skirmishes which end with the Ninth decimated and its general (Dominic West) taken captive by Celtic opposite number Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), Centurion narrows its focus to concentrate on seven fugitives.
Led by Quintus (Michael Hunger Fassbender), the sole Roman survivor of an earlier raid on a frontier fort, the pack races to get back across the English border before their woad-wearing pursuers – themselves headed by mute, revenge-seeking banshee Etain (Olga Kurylenko) – catch up with them.
The trouble with this tactic is it frontloads the film with most of its Gladiator and 300-style carnage, peaking too soon with a fiery forest ambush reminiscent of Spartacus.
As a result Centurion gets noticeably less exciting as it goes along, slowing to a crawl during a ho-hum interlude that sees Quintus find refuge and romance with scarred Scottish outcast Imogen Poots.
West’s macho swagger makes a neat complement to Fassbender’s steely resolve, while Kurylenko compensates for her lack of verbals with a feral ferocity only hinted at in Quantum Of Solace.
Like Doomsday before it, alas, Marshall’s latest is more a collection of striking set-pieces than a satisfying whole, for all its eye-snagging vistas and muddy mayhem.
Neil Marshall ticks off another genre with an entertaining if uneven historical drama that starts stronger than it finishes.