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HomeBlogPopcorn Parent Movie ReviewsMovie Review: The Eagle (PG-13)

Movie Review: The Eagle (PG-13)

Movie Review: The Eagle (PG-13)

Roman Bust

eagleAfter many missteps, The Eagle trips onto its own sword

by Jared Peterson

In 140 AD, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives in Britain under a cloud of family dishonor. Twenty years earlier, his father had commanded the Roman Empire’s revered Ninth Legion, but he disappeared somewhere along the northern frontier, along with all 5,000 men in his unit and the golden eagle that adorned its standard. Both the legion and the Eagle were shining symbols of Rome, and their loss has signaled a previously unimagined limit to its power. Haunted by the specter of his father’s apparent failure, Marcus accepts his first command at a beleaguered garrison in the British hinterlands, hoping to redeem his family name.

When Marcus is gravely wounded in a battle with one of the native tribes, he is shipped away to the safety and luxury of a villa owned by his uncle (Donald Sutherland). Taking in a gladiatorial contest, he sees a scrappy, defiant Briton called Esca (Jamie Bell), whom he spares from death and ends up taking as his personal slave. Esca, whose family and tribe were decimated by the Romans, seethes with hatred for the invaders but vows to repay his debt. When Marcus is fully recovered the two embark on a journey to recover the Eagle. They go north, beyond the wall built by the emperor Hadrian to mark the edge of the Roman world, and deep into what would someday become Scotland. They fight each other, fend off savage bands of Picts, the infamous painted warrior tribes of the region, and search for clues that may help Marcus unravel the mystery of his father’s fate.

Thinking about it, I can’t figure out why this movie was made. Who needs another Roman epic? It’s based on The Eagle of the Ninth, a generally well-regarded children’s novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. Though I’ve not read the book, I can’t imagine the film does it much justice—the thinly drawn characters on display here couldn’t stand at the center of a novel-length work. (A TV format would better suit the material, and in fact there was a BBC miniseries of the story produced in the ‘70s.) Timing is everything, and all in all, there is something quite stilted about The Eagle. The pacing is off—plot points pop up at odd intervals and moments of emotional import sometimes feel like they’ve been wheeled in from the wings. (One instance of therapy ex machina in the final act is particularly groan-inducing.) The action sequences conform to a predictable post-modern aesthetic, slathered in mud and grime but with the crisp, beat-box choreography of a kung-fu movie. And way too much of our time is spent watching Marcus and Esca trudging across the Scottish highlands—or worse, watching Marcus watch Esca talk to some Celtic farmer from a dull, safe distance.

A note to film executives: Channing Tatum cannot carry a movie. Now, I bear the man no ill will—he didn’t ask to be born with that face, blessed as it is with the chiseled proportions of a Classical statue, and cursed with an acting range to match. Tatum’s features aren’t just strong; they’re impenetrable—complex emotions that might very well churn beneath that stolid countenance just can’t seem to make their way out. (Perhaps we could set up some kind of Bat-signal that goes up whenever Tatum is cast in a film, summoning Josh Hartnett to swoop in and take over.) Jamie Bell is equipped to do better, and Esca’s pained backstory, at least, comes through in flickers of anger and sadness. Mark Strong is relieved of his traditional duties of playing the dead-eyed villain, but his character Guern is parenthetical at best—a shame and a waste of a great character actor.

The Eagle is rated PG-13. There is your standard epic violence: the blades, spears and arrows come out in melee on large and small scales. The two or three most gruesome acts of violence occur just off frame, which doesn’t make them any less unsettling. Speaking of unsettling, our heroes must at one point resort to eating a rat. Raw. I know, right? There’s a smattering of profanity, and some drinking and carousing. If you can stomach the fact that your teens can stomach it, The Eagle is as good an excuse as any to sit in the dark and eat popcorn.

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