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Centurion takes Roman holiday in hell

Neil Marshall fight fest has plenty of shock, but precious little awe

Arrows fly, swords slice and beards bristle in an "Unleash hell!" set piece from the Roman-era action flick Centurion. In 117 A.D., Rome's Ninth Legion marches North to Caledonia (aka Scotland) to subdue the rebellious Celtic natives, the Picts. While passing through a sinister forest, the soldiers hear eerie Pictish voices echo through the mist. Fireballs hurtle down hillsides to splinter the Roman formation, and finally the Picts swarm the invaders.

Director Neil Marshall reduces the height of the battle to its brutal points of impact, editing the melee into a grimy, blood-flecked blur of blades connecting with flesh. It's almost like a montage of chopping wood — Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! — and presents a horrific vision of second-century combat.

In context with the rest of Centurion, however, the smash-cut sequence seems more a byproduct of financial constraints than a creative choice to overwhelm his audience. Marshall previously helmed the impressive, female-oriented thriller The Descent and the stylish guilty pleasure Doomsday, but Centurion held out a chance to transcend the B-list. Centurion presents a provocative premise, memorable kills and a commanding performance from Michael Fassbender, but fails to secure Marshall's artistic promotion.

Fassbender plays Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion taken prisoner after the Picts sack a Roman outpost. Tormented by Pict king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), Quintus escapes and flees shirtlessly across a frozen mountaintop. He eventually meets up with the Ninth Legion, led by brawling but shrewd General Titus Virilus ("The Wire's" Dominic West). Virilus hopes that Etain (Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), a mute, deadly Pict turncoat, will lead them to Gorlacon so the Romans can crush the Pict insurgency.

Instead, the Pict ambush results in a Roman massacre. Quintus must lead a handful of survivors across hostile territory while been tracked by relentless pursuers. When Quintus and his men seek shelter in a cave, Centurion evokes an old Lenny Bruce routine about World War II movies, and how their demographically balanced casts amounted to "the United Nations in a foxhole." Here, the soldiers hail from various corners of the Roman Empire, but Marshall scarcely lingers long enough on them for the audience to identify with any individuals.

The real fate of the Ninth Legion is a historical mystery, but Centurion offers some reasonably plausible guesswork that amounts to a graveyard-of-history kind of metaphor. Rome's Caledonian campaign offers clear parallels to the Vietnam War and any time a superpower has tried to conquer Afghanistan.

Marshall's pulpy obsessions trip up his thematic ambitions, however, particularly where Centurion's female characters are concerned. The two most sadistic and visually striking Pict pursuers happen to be warrior-women who seem more animalistic than human. Given the abuses of the Roman occupation, perhaps Marshall sees poetic justice in having female furies stalk Rome's representatives. In practice, it reduces the colonial complexities to the kinky simplicity of a standard revenge film, and cultivates a terror of bloodthirsty femme fatales until the protagonists can violently subdue them. Really, what up with that?

"She's a Pict and a woman — two good reasons not to trust her," one of Quintus' cohorts says when they meet a beautiful hermit (Imogen Poots). The sympathetic character helps inoculate Centurion and provides some romantic tension with Quintus, but doesn't compensate for the film's strain of sexism. At least Fassbender's performance helps elevate the material's simplicity. Most famous as Inglourious Basterds' stiff-upper-lipped soldier/film critic, Fassbender conveys Quintus' moral conflicts as a loyal Imperial soldier waging a war he perceives as increasingly unjust.

Despite such heavyweight ideas, Centurion proves disappointingly comparable to Marshall's previous film, Doomsday, in which Scotland of the near future devolves into Mad Max-style barbarism. Like Doomsday, Centurion works just fine on the level of visceral drive-in fare: At one point, one fighter shoves his adversary face-first into a tree, and through you don't see the collision, red matter bursts from either side of the tree trunk. Centurion delivers plenty of shock, but precious little awe.