Actors learn only by doing, and by getting in over their heads. In the heyday of the Hollywood studio era, often they’d do this while wearing extremely heavy battle garb, surrounded by extras yelling “Aarrrrrghhhh!” as they run toward the enemy.
The Eagle recalls that heyday in fairly entertaining fashion, and a welcome paucity of computer-generated hordes. Set in 2nd century Roman Britain, a time and place of great scowling, the film stars ex-stripper and former model Channing Tatum as the warrior son of a warrior, a young man determined to venture north of Hadrian’s Wall with his Briton slave, where no Roman can survive without special screenplay dispensation.
Object of the road trip: to retrieve the shining gold symbol of the far-reaching Roman Empire, the eagle statue, last carried into battle by Rome’s Ninth Legion. What became of the Ninth’s vanished 5,000 soldiers? Can the Roman warrior Marcus, portrayed by Tatum, trust his minion, Esca, played by Jamie Bell? Or will the slave slit the master’s throat first chance he gets, as Marcus’ wise old owl of an uncle (Donald Sutherland) predicts with such certainty?
Good questions. Director Kevin Macdonald’s middleweight epic provides answers that, as performance evaluations phrase it, meet expectations. Macdonald made the documentary Touching the Void and the dramatic features The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, and he likes to keep his hand-held camera nice and close to the action. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shoots on film here, as opposed to using the super-bright digital palettes he brought to 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire, the latter having won Mantle the Oscar. Different world, different story with The Eagle, which screenwriter Jeremy Brock adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff ’s 1954 young-adult novel The Eagle of the Ninth. The idea is to immerse audiences in the grime and chaos of Marcus’ quest.
The movie owes clear debts to Gladiator, though the producers also cite the Stanley Kramer drama The Defiant Ones as an inspiration. The Eagle becomes more interesting the further north it travels, and there’s an effective narrative switcheroo when Marcus and Esca trade roles to deceive the (fictionalized) native peoples of the Very, Very Far North, the “Seal People,” formidable warriors and trackers indeed.
In this latter section of the story, Tatum’s performance momentarily acquires a spark. But too often in The Eagle, in which the Romans are played by American actors and the Britons are played by Brits, Tatum comes off like “second Roman warrior from the left” rather than “Roman warrior the film is about.” Star quality is an elusive commodity. I’m not sure Tatum has it. On the other hand, he’s one of the bright spots in the Vince Vaughn vehicle The Dilemma. So there’s hope.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:firstname.lastname@example.org