(by Dustin Putman
Based on the 1954 historical novel "The Eagle of the Ninth" by Rosemary Sutcliff, the title-shortened "The Eagle" is set up in the opening credits with an intriguing backstory. In 120 A.D., five thousand men from the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into Northern Britain and disappeared without a trace. Shamed by their apparent failure and wishing for stronger military fortification, emperor Hadrian built a wall separating the area from the rest of England. A fascinating film—even one that had taken creative liberties with the truth—might have very easily been made about these events, but "The Eagle" is not it. Director Kevin Macdonald (2009's "State of Play") and screenwriter Jeremy Brock get caught up in adhering to the plot of their source material, and it comes off as unfortunately banal and one-note, concentrating on the recovery of a golden eagle emblem that went missing along with the Ninth Legion. "How can a piece of metal mean so much?" Scottish slave Esca (Jamie Bell) asks the man he is indebted to, Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum). Marcus' response: "It's not a piece of metal, it stands for our honor." Insert eye roll here. Article continues below
You see, Marcus' father commanded the first cohort of the Ninth twenty years earlier, and he would like to think that ol' Pops died trying to defend the eagle. Finding it and restoring his family's good name means the world to Marcus, so, following a battle injury and a stint convalescing under the guidance of Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland), the young soldier sets off on his grave mission beyond Hadrian's Wall—said to be "the end of the known world"—and into enemy territory. Standing alongside him is slave Esca, son of slain chief of the Brigantes Cunoval, who lets it be known that he hates everything the Romans stand for, but must nonetheless serve Marcus because it was he who saved him. Braving hunger, the elements, and plenty of people who want Marcus dead, their search ultimately leads them into the clutches of warriors of the so-called Seal People. They know very well where the eagle is.
Eventually—like, in the very last scene of "The Eagle"—Marcus experiences an epiphany that the Romans are no better than anyone else, happy to pillage and brutally slay anyone who is not like them. This comes after nearly two hours in which Marcus himself has done those very things. As a protagonist, he's got a shallow, one-track mind and is not necessarily someone the viewer wants to side with. His voyage to find the emblem of the title never becomes something that means a thing to anyone outside of the film, and, having only known his father offscreen and as a small child, there is no emotional weight to Marcus' goal. Instead, he seems to just be idly going through the motions of the plot he's in. As for the mystery of the missing Ninth Legion, the film provides an answer to their whereabouts that is annoyingly pat verging on asinine in the way it is revealed. For not much payoff, the pacing in getting to this point is awfully languid. Only in the last-act chases on horseback and foot and the final forest-set battle to the death does veritable excitement take shape.
Using an American accent with just the vaguest hint of an overseas inflection, Channing Tatum (2011's "The Dilemma") shouldn't be faulted for his speaking voice—this was director Kevin Macdonald's decision—but also doesn't go out of his way to give dramatic depth to Marcus Flavius Aquila. Tatum is suitably authoritative, and that is how he remains for the duration. It's not a bad performance, but it is flat one, roughly about as flexible as a Botox injection. Jamie Bell (2008's "Jumper") is an acceptable Esca, his allegiances seeming to shift throughout, but his role is secondary to Tatum's. With just a little more push in a certain direction, the film could have easily turned into an unintended study in homoeroticism; Marcus and Esca share good chemistry and do seem to grow mighty close together, one kiss away from a full-blown romance. That, at least, may have given the picture more of an identity than the bland final product that has been made.
Shot in a brooding, rainswept Scotland by d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle (2010's "127 Hours"), "The Eagle" is a handsome production. Empty though it turns out to be, it does looks good. Less refined is the editing by Justine Wright, too meandering until it gets to the battle sequences, where it becomes too quick and choppy. There's no denying how hacked-up the film appears, obviously to dodge a less friendly rating than the PG-13 it has received. The biggest problem, however, is that director Kevin Macdonald never gives his audience a reason to care. The story is accessible insomuch that it's easy enough to follow, but it's also so dopey and the lead character so ineffectual and hypocritical that there just isn't something substantive to cling to. Movies like this one are a dime a dozen unless the makers bring something a little extra or unusual to the table. When they don't, they end up as ho-hum as "The Eagle."