The Eagle Review

(2.5 STARS)

If The Eagle reached a little higher, it could have been a very good film. As it stands, it’s a harmless, sporadically entertaining swords-and-sandals epic. But I didn’t get the sense that there was much passion behind the scenes. Character development feels half-assed, the acting is subpar, and Kevin MacDonald’s directorial style threw me off at times. Nothing about The Eagle really frustrated me, but I never felt fully enveloped by anything going on. It just came and went—not a terrible way to spend two hours, but certainly not the most worthwhile way either.

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a young Roman officer assigned to lead a small outpost in England. He leads his men with the utmost courage and valor, but carries a chip on his shoulder, mainly because he wants to repair the image of his father, a former officer who ventured into Scotland and, along with his men and the famous Eagle of the Ninth, was never seen again. When Marcus is injured in the line of duty, he’s sent away to his uncle’s (Donald Sutherland) estate, where he’s given a medal and an honorable discharge. A military man at heart, he flounders for a while, but after saving the life of an English slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), he decides to go over Hadrian’s Wall, into Scotland, in order to find out what really happened to his father and his men, and to hopefully recover the lost Eagle.

Despite the familiar storyline, there’s something refreshing about The Eagle. Maybe it’s because it’s an old-fashioned action-adventure that doesn’t rely on CGI to keep your attention. The action scenes, though certainly not groundbreaking, are exciting enough, and the unrated edition on DVD doesn’t really hold back when it comes to blood and violence.

The other aspect of the film I admired was the relationship between Marcus and Esca. One’s a slave, the other his master. But at one critical point in the film, the two are forced to adopt the other’s role. They’re both thrown for a loop as they ponder what it feels like to walk in the other’s shoes. I wish the film stuck with it a little longer. The way that subplot wraps up feels too sudden and contrived. But while it lasts, it brings a modicum of intelligence to an otherwise brainless motion picture.

With Marcus being a relatively juicy role, I wonder who made the decision to cast Channing Tatum. The dude is nothing but muscles and a pretty face, and he brings little charisma and virtually no gravitas to the table. Jamie Bell, while not the world’s greatest actor, at least offers something. He shines in the aforementioned scenes where he becomes Marcus’ master. You’re never quite sure if he’s still loyal to Marcus, which makes for a very intriguing middle third. If only the film stuck to what worked…

My main motivation for seeing this film was that I’m a big fan of director Kevin MacDonald. Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, even State of Play are all engaging and interesting pieces of work. What he does here is mediocre at best. In fact, I thought he took something away from the material. The way he portrays the Scots, even if it’s historically accurate, is just plain silly. MacDonald plays up the mystical elements of their culture in a way that really distracts from the story and the main characters. The bleak landscape and dark colors of pre-Middle Ages Europe are replaced here by over-the-top tribal motifs and bizarre green lighting. The best filmmaking style is often the one that’s least obtrusive, and that’s definitely not the case with MacDonald here.

I doubt I’ll remember much about The Eagle a year from now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad film. It’s missteps are minor compared to some of the garbage in theaters, but its plusses don’t exactly jump out at you. For the bleak February landscape in which it was released, it deserved better. But considering the promising material and some of the talent involved, it also probably should have been better.

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