Movie violence has come a long, bloody way since the days when the result of a gunshot was a clean hole and a quick, melodramatic death. But few today have gone as far into grisliness as British director Neil Marshall. Most of The Descent, his breakthrough film, was bathed in dim, crimson cave light, which largely obscured the bloodiness. But Doomsday and now Centurion largely unfold in the great outdoors, for a clear view of geysers of arterial spray, too-realistically severed limbs and miscellaneous, heartless brutality. Even for the seasoned gorehound, Marshall’s films hack off body parts you’ve never seen hacked off before—or ever thought you’d want to.
Centurion tells of the famed Ninth Legion, a second-century, 4,000-man army sent by the Roman Empire to conquer the Celtic tribes of Scotland. As the tale goes, no one came back: The tribes were reluctant to kowtow to Rome’s corrupt proto-conglomerate, and had perfected guerilla warfare. Centurion sides, sort of, with the Romans, following the titular centurion (means he leads a hundred men in battle), Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who survives a brutal raid only to wind up joining an equally luckless legion. This one at least puts up a fight: Led by charismatic Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), our doomed heroes spend the (succinct) film keeping death at bay. Yup, it’s Jimmy McNulty and Lt. Archie Hicox swordfighting a bunch of people, including a badass, mute Celtic babe who has a way with sharp objects (Bond girl Olga Kurylenko).
Essentially a chase film—think The Naked Prey with heavy armor—Centurion’s brutality extends past hacked-at flesh. Marshall is a tough filmmaker, not afraid to kill off prominent characters in the most blood-spraying way possible, and his worldview isn’t straightforward. The protagonists may be Roman, but Marshall’s sympathies are for the men laboring for a faceless, heartless empire, not the faceless, heartless empire itself. He even has sympathies for their savage opponents—a group of innocents cruelly efficient at defending what’s theirs, intent on not being victimized. This, as Dias gravely puts it, is “a war without honor, without end,” which may sound familiar. As The Expendables threatens to take action cinema back to the jingoistic, black-and-white morality of the corndog ‘80s, Centurion reminds us that nuance can kick ass, too.