By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
However well-intentioned they might be, sword-and-sandals epics struggle to look and seem real rather than fake, sober rather than silly. But that unfortunate intersection is where The Eagle has landed.
Scripted by Jeremy Brock, The Eagle is a plodding adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical adventure, The Eagle of the Ninth, which is based on the legend of the Ninth Spanish Legion that was alleged to have disappeared in Britain during a clash of cultures that eventuated into a military encounter.
Channing Tatum (left) stars as Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion on a quest to discover the truth behind the disappearance of his commander father’s legion in the north of Roman-ruled Britain.
Marcus and a British slave, played by Jamie Bell, with the blessing of his retired uncle, played by Donald Sutherland (at right in photo), travel into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia (now Scotland) in hopes of recovering the legion’s cherished golden eagle, the symbol of honor that they had carried into battle, and restore the reputation of his father — who disappeared in apparent defeat at the hands of the savage tribes that he and the legion he commanded opposed — and thus his family name.
But once they get into hostile territory beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, the master-slave relationship that the two travelers ride in with is in for a switch and a makeover.
There’s an old-fashioned integrity to The Eagle that eventually declares itself and impresses, but not enough to make up for several misguided notions that makes this enterprise a pronounced uphill climb.
Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, a documentarian (Touching the Void, One Day in September) who made an impressive transition to narrative features (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) takes the cast-of-thousands approach in combat sequences. Early on, before we know any of the characters, the admittedly vigorous action is especially indifferent, and too much video-game shallowness throughout limits the impact of this tale of lost honor regained.
Do we buy the period portrayed? With minimal context and a host of verbal anachronisms that, especially when delivered in American English, as director Macdonald has opted to do, sometimes invite unintentional laughter and brings to mind thoughts of Monty Python sketches, we never stop noticing the artifice.
That’s not because the film is sloppily made — all the technical accoutrements, including editing and cinematography, are admirable — but because some of the artistic choices being made just don’t pay off by encouraging the suspension of disbelief.
To say nothing of asking us to identify with and root for such an imperialistic protagonist. Why should we?
Tatum, ever earnest, is a limited actor who here plays his one resolute note throughout, never coming close to seeming three-dimensional, and Bell and Sutherland, while creating more rounded characters than Tatum does, don’t get much help from the straight-ahead script. But the master-slave dynamic that could have provided the movie the fascinating spark that might have brought it to life and given it a beating heart is merely accepted and glossed over.
Admittedly, although The Eagle may not cut it as anthropology, it should please Channing Tatum fans who don’t ask much more of him than showing up. But others will find this to be one interminable slog.
So we’ll invade 2 stars out of 4 for a period action-adventure thriller up for a discharge that’s somewhere between honorable and dishonorable.
In short, The Eagle doesn’t quite fly.