The Eagle ✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
All the sturm and drang can’t hide the obvious. “The Eagle,” starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, is “Gladiator” Lite, a low-budget costumer about honor and redemption … and handing your enemy his head on a shield.
What makes this British-U.S. co-production unusual is that it takes as its main hero an arrogant Roman invader. Talk about being out of sync with the current wave of populist uprisings.
The time: Long Long Ago (well, 140 A.D.). The place: an ancient England that only Monty Python could love. Tatum, who was Pretty Boy Floyd in “Public Enemies,” dons helmet and sandals to play pretty-boy Marcus Aquila, a young centurion assigned to lead a small garrison in the south. Marcus, of course, comes with baggage: Twenty years ago, his father Flavius lost the entire Ninth Legion in a battle with Celtic warriors
Worse, Flavius lost the eagle standard, symbol of Rome’s might.
Hence, the family name has become synonymous with coward and Marcus in his new command aims to acquit himself better than the Old Man did. He does in a skirmish against Druid fanatics led by a guy who looks like Christopher Lee in drag in “The Wicker Man.” Marcus is severely wounded in the melee and, though cited for conspicuous valor, receives an early discharge.
This won’t do. We’ve got another 80 minutes of screen time to fill/kill.
The Act II curtain rises on Marcus saving a slave named Esca (Bell) from certain death in a vat-sized gladiatorial arena. Now in Marcus’s debt, Esca accompanies the Roman into uncharted territory beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Their mission: retrieve the golden eagle.
Shot in Hungary and Scotland, “The Eagle” boasts spectacular gorges and fog-laced woods, and a reasonably decent sense of period. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void,” “The Last King of Scotland”) started out as a documentarian and it shows: He builds pre-battle jitters by breaking down these moments into Eisenstein-ian close-ups of eyes and hands. Too bad he isn’t much in the action department. His combat is reduced to battle whoops and a morass of blurred figures. We sense that limbs are being bashed and rent, but the overall effect is akin to a razor nick. Such are the hazards of cutting what cried out to be an R-rated epic (like “Rob Roy”) for a PG-13.
To be kind, the mix of Brit-Yank accents isn’t noticeably jarring. Tatum, however, never gets a handle on Marcus’s inner turmoil. For this film to work, we should feel some of the stinging irony of Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” Tatum provides a straight-up action hero who somehow rallies from a life-threatening wound to join in the climactic battle. Bell has the slave’s leer down but he never seems Tatum’s equal. And this of course robs the brewing feud / role reversal of any real excitement. Thank goodness then for Donald Sutherland, who appears as Marcus’s wily uncle. It’s all Sutherland can do to keep from giggling up his sleeve at the film’s unintentionally camp dialogue.
The Eagle ✮✮ With Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Kevin Macdonald; scripted by Jeremy Brock from the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. Running time: 114 min. PG-13 (for battle carnage)