If you did a mashup of Gladiator and Braveheart and remade it as a videogame, you'd probably wind up with something like Centurion, a mildly engaging action-thriller that seems to grimly revel in its gruesome violence.
Set in the second century A.D. in northern Great Britain, Centurion can also be read as a metaphor against imperialism and manifest destiny. Whether it's Algeria, India, Vietnam or Iraq, Centurion is yet another story built on the idea that invaders ignore the power of an indigenous insurgency at their own risk.
In this case, it's the Roman Empire, specifically, a legion of Roman soldiers on the northern frontier of its invasion of Britain. They can't seem to get any traction against the Picts, the local force that fights like guerrillas and has the Romans flummoxed.
Quintus (Michael Fassbender) is an officer in a legion that is all but slaughtered when his patrol is overrun by the Picts. Quintus is captured and taken to the Pict camp, where its leader, Ulrich Thomsen, tells him the Picts will never surrender and the Romans will never win. Before they can behead him, however, Quintus escapes, his hands tied, shirtless, dashing through the snow.
He eventually is picked up by the Ninth Legion, led by Gen. Virilus (Dominic West), who enlists him to go wipe out the Picts. But then Custer assumed he was going to annihilate Sitting Bull and we all know how that came out.
Directed by Neil Marshall (Descent), Centurion doesn't have a lot of suspense, though the tension caused by the threat of excruciating violence - and then the follow-through with swords, axes, disembowelments, beheadings and the like - is serious. But the battle sequences mostly seem to be made of killshots - or the sword-and-sandal equivalent: guys thrusting blades, pikes and axes into skulls and chests, with computer-generated blood squirting darkly.
Oh, yes, the dark: Though there's not a lot of night action, you'd think the whole thing had been shot during an eclipse. Apparently the accepted visual shorthand for first-millennium England is murkiness.
Centurion has a simple enough story - the Romans, who think they're in charge, have pissed off the Picts and now they've got to escape from these wildmen warriors. The characters are sketchily drawn - good guys, bad guys - and then they spend their time either running from their enemies or battling them.
Marshall knows how to get the adrenaline flowing but to what end? Centurion seems to be mostly an exercise in dress-up, with blood-bags thrown in for fun.