'The Eagle' Crash-Lands
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"The Eagle," an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's young-adult best-seller, takes flight several thousand years in the misty past, when Rome's imperial shadow covered the known world. Like 2010's "Centurion," the movie plumbs the mystery of what happened to the crack Ninth Roman Legion, 5,000 men who marched into the Caledonian highlands (Scotland) and were never seen or heard from again. Given such juicy history and exotic terrain, this ought to be a compelling saga of warring cultures, unlikely friendship and a young man's costly quest for lost honor. But "The Eagle" fails to soar, thanks largely to Kevin Macdonald's unimaginative direction and Channing Tatum's charisma-challenged performance.
We meet young Marcus Aquila (Tatum) as he takes command of a frontier fort deep in the wilds of Britain. The untested officer has barely arrived before the post is attacked by Druid-led savages. It's Marcus alone who senses the impending midnight ambush, inspiring the fort's grizzled veterans to stand around projecting such pole-axed awe you wonder how they managed to survive before Studly arrived. Our muscular hero's only personality trait is a craving for honor at any price, since his dad's the one who led the Ninth into oblivion, losing the legion's talismanic golden eagle standard to boot. So when the Britons hit the Roman shield line in chariots tricked out with man-slicing blades (remember "Ben-Hur"?), Marcus charges into the enemy to cover his troops' retreat.
OK, the acting's out of an old-fashioned sword-and-sandal epic, and the action's so fast and blurred it feels neither violent nor authentically kinetic. Still, "The Eagle" does manage storytelling liftoff ... and then immediately crash-lands in a narrative bog. Recall that in "Gladiator," after a rip-roaring battlefield prelude, Russell Crowe's Maximus had slowly to recover from near-death before he could take up his relentless quest for vengeance. In the interim, Ridley Scott never let the momentum falter, his movie driven by world-class visuals and the power of Crowe's physical and emotional heft. Not so with "The Eagle." During Marcus' recuperation at uncle Donald Sutherland's villa, Macdonald takes a strangely prolonged time-out to study Studly as he sweats and grimaces in pain, endures several surgeries, obsesses about his father's shame.
Since not much happens on Tatum's lumpen physog, we have to take the existence of a functioning inner life on faith. We also strain, as our minds wander, not to picture the kilted Roman, all pouty-lipped and buff, as the male stripper Tatum has confessed he once was.
Marcus does rouse himself sufficiently to rescue Esca, a hapless Caledonian POW (Jamie Bell), from slaughter in the gladiatorial arena. (Bell, also super-buff, projects tight-lipped rage as his assigned expression.) In due time, the unlikely "blood brothers" set off for the edge of the known world, bounded by Hadrian's Wall. Now's the time when the action should pick up again ... but slogging through even the most spectacular Scottish scenery -- in longshot, backed by obligatory Celtic choirs -- gets old fast.
After gnawing on some raw rodent, the lone legionnaire and his faithful Caledonian eventually meet up with Mark Strong, whom we fervently embrace: At last, some actorly charisma! Having deserted the beleaguered Ninth 20 years ago, this brooding survivor shows Marcus the eerie killing ground where the bones of Roman soldiers lie half-buried, and points the Hardy Boys in the direction of the tribe that employed guerrilla tactics to wipe them out. (Please read in parallels to Vietnam and Afghanistan.)
During Chapter 3 of this meandering text, Marcus and Esca hang out in the Painted Seal People's village, where Roman master becomes slave and the film tries to tease us with the possibility of fraternal betrayal. Togged out in ash-colored mud and sealskins, sporting modified Mohawks and skull-and-shell jewelry, these weird Picts are picturesquely Other (rather resembling Col. Kurtz's nutcases in "Apocalypse Now"). They've repurposed the golden eagle standard to suit their own savage symbolism.
Bumping along to a contrived "Wild Bunch" climax, "The Eagle" ultimately dead-ends in anticlimactic coda -- never once convincing the viewer that anything or anyone has changed significantly as a result of this pedestrian odyssey. A big-budget movie directed by a respected hack like Macdonald ("State of Play," "The Last King of Scotland") automatically raises expectations; even though this dud's been shelved since 2009, it still gets more ink and respect than a designated B-movie like Neil Marshall's "Centurion." Last word: Forgo any quest for "The Eagle" and seek out Marshall's "Centurion" -- or his "Dog Soldiers," for that matter: visceral moviemaking with real guts.
Kathleen Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kathleen's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.