A member of the Roman legion seeks to regain his family’s good name by displaying bravery in the wilds of Britain in The Eagle, a film with a sword-fighting action movie head welded to the body of a buddy movie.
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives in second-century Britain to serve as military head of an imperial outpost. But this posting is also meant to help him repair his family’s name. Decades earlier, his father was head of the Ninth Legion, which marched — 5,000 men strong — into northern Britain and was never heard from again. Not even their golden eagle — the shiny thing they held aloft when they marched so that the native peoples knew where to aim — was found. So the empire built a wall — Hadrian’s wall — and nobody ever went north of it again and Marcus Aquila was left with all sorts of father issues.
Perhaps these issues are the reason he charges headlong into battle, like, the first chance he gets and is very brave in his showdown with the hairy local Brits but also gets himself injured and quickly discharged from the military. Mopey about not having a place to work out all his inner turmoil, Marcus sulks around the home of his uncle (Donald Sutherland), healing and looking for a new hobby. A chance attendance at an execution-by-gladiator event earns him a sidekick when he saves a Briton, Esca (Jamie Bell), who becomes his slave.
Esca has his own issues, mostly with Rome and the whole being-a-slave thing, but he bides his time with Marcus, who is decent if stuck up about the whole “We Are Rome” thing. When Marcus proposes sneaking north of the wall to rescue his father’s eagle, Esca comes along as a scout and also because he sees the excellent ditching-this-Roman opportunities available.
“North of the wall” is like saying “wild west” — no laws, shifty characters, native people not so keen on the invading army. At one point, the tables become turned and Marcus is forced to pose as Esca’s slave. It’s all very dreary and gloomy and since I guess this is supposed to be Scotland it makes sense.
The weather, I mean, not the movie.
From the by-the-numbers enemies-become-friends relationship of Marcus and Esca to the scattered fight scenes (which manage to be just confusing enough that you can’t tell how many people are supposed to be fighting each other at any one time), The Eagle feels like a bunch of movies you’ve seen before and a few you didn’t bother seeing the first time: Centurion, a little-seen movie from last year, or King Arthur, a little-seen movie with slightly more famous people from 2004. And if I never have to hear Channing Tatum try to do — is that an accent? What is that? There’s this thing actors, American actors in particular, do when they’re playing anything from the beginning of recorded (Western) history through Shakespeare. It’s not quite a British accent but it’s not quite not a British accent. Whatever that’s called, Channing fades in and out of it through the course of the movie and it’s distracting. Jamie Bell — yes, that kid from Billy Elliot — is lucky; he was born with the right accent.
For all that, The Eagle isn’t horrible — it has some nice fighting there in the final third and the relationship between Tatum and Bell is fun, even if the movie does, in the end, get carried away with the cutesiness of the Briton-and-Roman fox-and-hound friendship. (You can see them walking on the set of some Law & Order: Britannia, with Esca the street-wise Jerry Orbach type and Marcus the cute Benjamin Bratt character.) But there’s a heaviness that the movie is never quite able to shake. The Eagle is clearly lightweight B-movie action entertainment but it still seems like it’s trying to be Gladiator.
Rated PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images. Directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Jeremy Brock (from a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff),The Eagle is an hour and 54 minutes long and opens in wide release on Friday, Feb. 11. It is distributed by Focus Features.