Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila
Jamie Bell as Esca
Donald Sutherland as Aquila
Mark Strong as Guern
Denis O’Hare as Lutorius
Tahar Rahim as Seal Prince
Dakin Matthews as Claudius
Douglas Henshall as Cradoc
Jon Campling as Scottish Hill Dweller
Julian Lewis Jones as Cassius
Paul Ritter as Galba
Lukács Bicskey as Shaman
Jamie Beamish as Legionary
Ben O’Brien as Milecastle Guard
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Twenty years after the five thousand men of Rome’s Ninth Legion mysteriously vanished in the North of England, a young Roman soldier named Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), son of the leader of the Ninth, goes across the Hadrian Wall with a young slave (Jamie Bell) in order to find his father and retrieve the symbolic golden eagle that represents the missing Legionnaires.
At this point, one might wonder why anyone would feel the need for another Roman epic, especially when this type of material has been mined so frequently in the past. Kevin Macdonald’s exploration of the early days of Britain before it became civilized comes out just a few short months after Neil Marshall’s “Centurion,” though based on a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, it takes a far more traditional approach to the material being set twenty years after the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.
After a brief introduction about the Roman invasion of Britain, the missing Legion and the building of Hadrian’s Wall, we meet Channing Tatum’s Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young man who has joined the Roman army in the Southern region of the country in hopes of restoring his father’s name. One of the local druid tribes invades their fortress leading to a fierce battle in which Marcus gets severely injured and sidelined from the army. Things settle down as we sit through a long stretch of the normal day-to-day of the Romans with lots of discussions about Marcus’ father and his negligence. During that time, Marcus saves a slave named Esca, played by Jaime Bell, from being killed in gladiatorial games, who in turn commits his services to Marcus.
After almost 40 minutes of senseless exposition, we finally get into the actual plot of the film, which is Marcus’ quest to find his father and retrieve the golden eagle the missing Ninth Legion once carried. He’s accompanied by Esca who offers to help him survive in the dangerous and uncharted territory north of the Hadrian Wall, but their roles are reversed when they encounter the vicious Seal People, their leader played by Tahar Rahim from “A Prophet,” and Marcus has to take on the role of Esca’s prisoner and slave to maintain the illusion.
From his very first scene, it’s pretty obvious how miscast Channing Tatum is for the role of Marcus – in fact, it’s probably going to be considered the year’s worst casting until Jessica Alba signs to another movie. Sure, he’s rugged and tough and you can believe him as a soldier, but the American accents are already distracting and hard to adjust to without his normally stiff delivery. Maybe we’ve become so accustomed to Romans in movies speaking in regal British accents, but it’s interminably awkward to see actors like Donald Sutherland wearing traditional Roman garb but doing little to make the viewer believe that these are characters from those times.
You can tell Macdonald spent a lot of time researching and getting every single detail just right, but that does little to help a story that’s lacking due to actors who just don’t feel appropriate for their parts. Despite being forced to take on an American accent–his character is from the Brooklyn section of Rome apparently–Mark Strong is the best part of the film though he appears for just one five-minute scene as a Legion deserter then returns briefly, another example of the film’s wasted potential.
While one can easily understand why Marcus Flavius might want to take on such a dangerous suicide mission in order to win back the respect of his family name, at a certain point, it just doesn’t feel worth it. The changing relationship between Marcus and Esca is one of the aspects of the film that does work, but it’s just not enough to make up for the slow pace following the decent battle scene that opens the movie.
Instead, Macdonald fills every scene with lots of gorgeous shots of the mountains and vistas of Scotland with the help of Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. A climactic chase through the Scottish countryside leads up to what should be an epic final confrontation that sputters and ends after a few minutes, but like most of the fight sequences, they’re shot in such a close-up heavily-edited style they don’t really do the action justice.
The Bottom Line:
Despite its potential, “The Eagle” adheres too closely to formula and is driven by stunted dialogue with sparse action scenes that do little to keep it interesting as well as a cast that aren’t up to the material. It’s the type of film that may have thrived in the ’90s and been nominated for lots of awards, but instead ends up being one that may finally retire an overused genre.