A former model turned actor, Channing Tatum is someone that everyone loves to hate. Yet it cannot be argued that he has been working hard to stretch himself by taking all kind of different roles. In The Eagle, it is starting to become apparent that he is coming along as a performer. While unspectacular and one-note, his quietly stoic performance was competent enough to carry the movie without generating any uncomfortable moment.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Eagle is a film adaptation of the celebrated 1954 adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. I walked in with little expectations since it stars the much maligned Tatum after all but I was agreeably surprised by the scope and ambitions of this movie. While it doesn’t come close to its full potential, this historical adventure is a perfectly acceptable sword and sandals film.
The interesting backstory for the movie is based on the disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion, a 5,000 men outfit which ventured into Northern Britain and disappeared without a trace. Likewise vanished their standard, a gold eagle that represents the might of Rome. Set twenty years later in 140 AD, young centurion Marcus Aquila (Tatum) arrives from Rome to take over a garrison in occupied Britain. Secretly, he yearns to solve the mystery and restore the tarnished reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. Accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus sets out across Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth.
Viewing the trailer for The Eagle, one may think this would be a cheap and stupid action movie. However, this would be badly underestimating Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald who previously directed highly acclaimed films such as The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and Touching the Void. While there is just enough well-shot action sequences throughout, the director focused the story on the tumultuous relationship between Marcus and Esca, as well as old-fashioned concepts such as honor, loyalty and brotherhood.
Macdonald’s movie is at his best when we watch the brotherly and somewhat homoerotic bond between master and slave slowly evolve. However, the primary issue with the movie is that it takes quite a long time to get the two characters started on their journey. The movie runs nearly two hours, easily 15 to 20 minutes too many which are mostly wasted trying to infuse some complexity into Tatum’s character. It’s also obvious that Macdonald and his lead actors took their work very seriously because there isn’t as much as an attempt for comic relief until the very end of the movie.
This isn’t to say that the actors are to blame for the film’s shortcomings. While it would have been interesting to see whether a more talented actor would have been able to do more, Channing Tatum is competent enough to carry the movie. As his reluctant sidekick, Jamie Bell is quite apparently the more charismatic performer. The two are joined by a host of accomplished supporting actors such as Donald Sutherland, Tahar Rahim and Mark Strong.
Made on a $20 million budget, the film looks surprisingly good, thanks in great part to the work of DP Anthony Dod Mantle and the breathtaking landscapes used as backgrounds. The action sequences are CGI-free and occasionally quite satisfying, most notably a couple early skirmishes in which Marcus begins to earn the respect of his men. The production design is dark and grimy and there is a palpable sense of authenticity in how the period was recreated.
A perfectly middle-of-the-road sword and sandals movie, The Eagle is earnestly entertaining but takes itself too seriously.
Notes: Rated PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images, 114 minutes.