Centurion is another swords and sandals movie, although it's set in Scotland, so there aren't any sandals. The Romans are still trying to subdue the Picts but are suffering the triple threat of homesickness, the weather, and very successful guerilla warfare. Quintus Dias, the centurion of the title, is spared after a Pictish raid because he can speak the language and may be "useful." He escapes, and totters through the snow shirtless (because he's played by Michael Fassbender) and bound. This is actually the opening scene of the film, and Dias informs us that "This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story."
The governor, Agricola, receives word that the northernmost outpost has been overrun, and sends the 9th Legion from York to take care of the Pictish problem once and for all. Led by General Virilus (not too subtle, that) played by Dominic West*, the 9th gets ambushed by the Picts before they even arrive, and are slaughtered. The General is taken, and Dias, leading a tiny band of survivors (including Mickey from Doctor Who-that's some real time travel) goes to free the General. He's shackled, however, and they don't have tools to break the iron. He commands Dias to lead the others home.
This is where the story really starts. The majority of the movie follows this group as they try to reach a Roman settlement from behind enemy lines while they are tracked by a superhuman she-wolf who is bent on revenge.
I've taken a less than respectful tone so far, but I did enjoy the film. Only afterwards did I notice that it was by Neil Marshall, of Descent fame. Both films deal with being stuck, out of your element, with your worst nightmare. The end result is about the same, too. Much like a Mahler concerto, Marshall manages to resolve the tension in ways that are not what you expect. The scene in which the General gets taken by the Picts was shockingly unusual, not least because you expect the General to sit his horse and rally the troops and be around to make some sort of sacrifice in the last 5 minutes, but also because West is filmed looking bewildered and flailing around as he's dragged from his horse.
I've been mulling over the treatment of Etain, the female tracker. Although she's treated as something supernatural, beyond the rules of humanity, I think it works. The key is the contrast between the Pictish women and Agricola's wife, coiffed within an inch of her life. She is the example of female perfection, to the Roman eye, so the women warriors would seem to be beneath, or beyond, human.
The main problem I had with Centurion was the neon blood. If the whole thing is meant to be stylized in a graphic novel way, like 300, then fine. But this was filmed more naturalistically, and in fact desaturated in tones of gray, so the highlighted blood fx didn't fit. I'd rather see swords that don't make marks than splashes of neon everywhere. But hey, that's just me.
So, for a cross between 300 and Gladiator, informed by the quest wandering of The Lord of the Rings films, with some good, unpredictable storytelling and female warriors with their own motivations, check out Centurion.
*And I won't say that when the General is drinking with his men, I thought of McNulty. Nope, won't do it.