The Eagle may not be the best film of the year, but for something that I had written off based on the trailer it is definitely far more entertaining and enjoyable than I ever expected. And that’s for reasons far more universal than the pleasure of a brief glimpse of Channing Tatum’s “homewrecking” abs. (Boyfriend’s choice of adjective, not mine).
Though parts of the story have some historical fact and speculation, the story is a work of fiction based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. As many Roman men do, Tatum’s character, Marcus Aquila, is a military man who has just been given command of a small group of soldiers in Britain, for a short while anyway. Short story shorter, his command ends prematurely after receiving wounds worthy of an honorable discharge during a fight to protect the fort from the enemy Britons. Not one to live his life out as a slacker, Aquila decides that if he cannot serve his empire as a military man he will bring back its honor, and that of his father, by finding the golden eagle of the Ninth Legion, which went missing under his father’s protection 20 years prior.
The story is a simple one of honor and revenge, and though it is not the most inspired it does provide enough to sustain this film throughout its entire journey. With a story like this, other elements become all the more important in retaining our attention. For starters, we’re going to need a strong cast if we will be following two actors across the beautiful expanses of Scotland as they search out the needle in this damp, hilly yet forested haystack (which is caught perfectly on film, might I add). Because a lot of the films success lies heavily on Tatum’s shoulders, my questioning concern for his casting in this key role become warranted as we are first introduced to his character. Though I have always enjoyed his performances in practically everything he has been in, from the romances like Dear John to the comedies like The Dilemma, I was still a little afraid for him playing a Roman soldier. Especially when I spent the first few minutes with him trying to decide if he was trying to speak with an accent, as if he was trying too hard to be seen as something other than what we know him to be based on previous roles and interviews as himself. Eventually my question subsided and I was actually able to really appreciate his performance (again, not because of his abs… Wait, what was I saying?).
But enough about accents that aren’t accents. If you can get past that with no problem than the biggest indication of whether or not you will enjoy this film is if you can think back fondly on your viewing of 2004’s “realistic” retelling of King Arthur. Let’s face it, The Eagle is not going to be the next Gladiator, but it does do plenty right. As mentioned, it takes full advantage of the locations it is shot on. But as pretty as they are I am not here to be swayed to take a vacation across the UK; I am here to be entertained. Which brings up back to the casting. Jamie Bell plays Aquila’s slave Esca, accompanying him throughout the “uncivilized” land above the wall. Their conflicting views on the war between the Roman and Britons provides some decent material for these two to butt heads over, and though it is not as great as the road trip conversations in True Grit, it gets the job done. In addition to Tatum’s physicality, Bell proves that he is just as capable in these scenes as he must fight alongside Tatum to survive outside the wall, and though their relationship never bloomed into an upbeat bromance as I secretly hoped for, the ever-morphing relationship of questioning trust provides enough to keep me from pouting (though a certain jolly scene later in the film reinvigorated my hopes for a random bonus feature on the DVD for this. A girl can dream…).
In addition to the first battle of the film that ends Aquila’s military career, there are a few bits of action littered throughout that do provide some small-scale thrills. Though they never have the epic scale deserving shouts of “THIS IS SPARTA!” or “WE WILL FIGHT IN THE SHADE!” like 300 exudes, they are still choreographed well and are definitely highlights for me, including a great choice of sound editing in a latter battle. And let’s face it; I am a sucker for a good phalanx. They just make me happy…
As I said before The Eagle never comes close to the overall greatness of Gladiator or the overwhelming flamboyancy of 300, but considering how little I expected from the film I was pleasantly surprised by how it turned out.
Final Grade: B-