I'd admit that the films of Neil Marshall's have been quite right up my alley, with a mishmash of genres all done with an excessively violent treatment, but it does go to show that relying too much on the usual will bring forth a stale feeling, that Marshall may not have anything more to offer other than to pepper his films with plenty of hacked limbs in a straight forward action adventure
Set in 117AD, Neil Marshall's story pits the Roman empire against the guerrilla Picts, who have halted the Roman invasion so much so that Rome decides on a last push. To the organized troops of Roman centurions, the Picts with their unorthodox techniques have the upper hand in a David and Goliath pattern, that it's up to Dominic West's General Virilus to lead an army, and with the help of Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) who has escaped from the Picts, to show them the way. That sets the premise of an otherwise ordinary film that's focused on its battle sequences, and has a very simple, two phase narrative to waltz through.
One of the draws here is of course Michael Fassbender's presence. Of 300 and Eden Lake fame, he brings forth a sense of vulnerability to a warrior's role, bent on trying to keep alive than to go all out to kill. He leads Virilus' surviving men of 6 to a rescue mission, before turning tails and having the next half of the film centered on their escape back to safe haven, all the while being tracked by Olga Kurylenko's Etain, a mute Pict scout who's an excellent tracker.
In some ways, the story had resembled like a distant cousin of the magnificent seven, where a rag tag team of surviving Roman centurions get cobbled together for a mission to rescue their beloved General. And I mean really rag tag since they have a cook amongst their ranks. It's an offensive maneuver first, before going all defensive because of the lack of skills, and numerical advantage and savagery that the Picts pose. Olga Kurylenko chews up her scenes even as she's more clothed than her previous films, and gets plenty of physical action (with weapons that is) to show she's no pushover for action sequences.
Strangely enough, a last minute romantic subplot gets thrown in which sort of spoils the film because it firmly roots itself as a finale plot development point, leaving little surprise for its hurried ending since you know just where and how the film would end. Like a typical Marshall film, there are tons of carefully crafted scenes that are bloody violent, such as smashing someone's head to a pulp against a tree or a full on ugly beheading. There's only one sequence that will stand out in the entire film, and that's a massive ambush against a full battalion of Roman soldiers, which is one-off and the only one done on grand scale, setting the scene for plenty of screen violence with unflinching decapitations of miscellaneous body parts.
Fans will find this an enjoyable action adventure, but it doesn't offer anything much nor new to win over new fans.