The Eagle (2011) / Adventure-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Running time: 114 min.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Denis O'Hare
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay: Jeremy Brock (based on the novel, "The Eagle of the Ninth", by Rosemary Sutcliff)
Review published July 9, 2011
Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, Touching the Void), who won an Oscar for his 1999 documentary, One Day in September, continues his run of feature films with The Eagle, an adventure tale based on the classic Rosemary Sutcliff 1954 historical book for juveniles, "The Eagle of the Ninth". For this epic tale, Macdonald joins forces yet again with Jeremy Brock (Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, Driving Lessons), who adapted the critically acclaimed The Last King of Scotland. Set mostly in Britannia during the high time of the expansive Roman Empire of 2nd Century A.D., the story follows Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum, GI Joe), a Roman centurion out to search for what happened to his commander father and his Ninth Spanish Legion of 5,000 warriors who went missing a generation prior in northern Britain (Caledonia, aka pre-Scotland) without a trace, along with the legion's symbolic emblem/insignia/standard/whatever made of gold, 'The Eagle". But Rome won't sanction any missions beyond Hadrian's Wall, built to keep out the dangerous, savage tribes that reside north of it, so it's up to Marcus, whose career in the military has come to an abrupt end due to a battle injury, along with his fearless but Rome-despising Briton slave, Esca (Bell, Jumper), to find out what happened to his father and try to return The Eagle to its rightful place in Roman hands,
Beautifully shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), The Eagle benefits from fantastic use of shadows and light, lush landscapes, misty atmosphere, and fluid camerawork, as befitting a cinematic epic battle tale. Despite it, the story feels like small potatoes in comparison to other war epics to grace the silver screen, more a personal quest to solve a mystery and redeem the family name, and along those lines, the film does work so long as you see it as a simple tale of valor. But, at the same time, the look is perhaps too vibrant and polished for the kind of story that it is, and could have been more effective if going for the grit and surrealism of Apocalypse Now or Aguirre to effectively give the scenes of northern Britain some awe and fear they call for.
The Romans are all given American accents in place of Latin dialogue, befitting an beefcake-y actor of Tatum's limited flex-muscles-often range. All things considered, Tatum doesn't come off as badly as he does in other films, displaying a good physical presence and even some range during emotional scenes that have him recalling his father and his sense of familial duty and restoration of honor. Sidekick Jamie Bell also performs well, especially in convincingly having to speak Gaelic, though, as with the lack of contrast in the atmosphere of the film, the duplicitous nature of his character isn't called into question nearly enough for the scenes in the middle of the film where he must pretend to be the master to Tatum's slave to be as effective as is warranted in the script.
The battle scenes are mostly without blood or viscera, in keeping with its PG-13 rating, though there are some decapitations that occur of a not-very-graphic nature. The adventure itself is the film's main selling point, and if you enjoy historical pieces and don't mind the inaccuracy that runs rampant in Hollywood releases, it's not bas as popcorn escapist fare. It's pleasures are modest, perhaps falling short of its lofty sights, and yet, given the lesser scrutiny involved in a home video, streaming or cable TV showing, it should find a more receptive audience than the ones who paid top dollar to see it in theaters.
©2011 Vince Leo