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DVD Review: Roman and British historical action is usually a slam dunk for me, and The Eagle—the second film in a year about the legendary “lost” Ninth Legion (after Centurion)—has plenty of tough battle grit and cold, scenic mist. It also has me thinking I’ve been too hard on this Channing Tatum fella.
I’m not sure we need another Ridley Scott—one is plenty, thanks—but The Eagle’s director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) continues to prove himself a decent Scott-esque film maker. Like Scott, McDonald has larger social, political, and human themes he’s after, but he also loves him a good, pulpy tale wrapped in gauzy, gritty visuals that are simultaneously full-blooded and ethereal.
With The Eagle, McDonald finds his way into one of Ridley Scott’s most beloved (and box-office-coveted) territories: Gladiator Land. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a 2nd-century Roman commander on the rise, but driven by shame: His father was the commander of the infamous Ninth Legion that supposedly (historians have their doubts) vanished into the Scottish mist decades earlier.
(Yes, this is the same Roman Ninth Legion at the center of Neil Marshall’s Centurion last fall—Marshall focused on the destruction of the Ninth, McDonald picks up the fanciful speculation 20 years later. Also, Marshall’s movie is at heart a gory, R-rated action romp, while The Eagle is PG-13—plenty brutal, but not nearly as bloody.)
The Eagle opens at a Roman fort in Northern England, with a tremendous battle between the Roman interlopers and the Briton natives—McDonald directs chaotic clashes with exciting energy, but also clarity and drive. But if that first act feels impressively like Master and Commander (especially in the details of everyday martial life), it soon shifts into Apocalypse Now mode.
The film’s real story is about Marcus heading north of Hadrian’s Wall into what is now Scotland with his Briton slave and male-co-bonder Esca (Billy Elliot’s terrific Jamie Bell, grown up and full of sunken-eyed glower).
They’re out to clear Marcus’ father’s name by returning the powerfully symbolic gold standard eagle that was lost along with the legion. (The famous wall was built 20 years earlier when the Romans banged into northern tribes like the blue, naked warrior Picts and said, “Oh, hell no. Screw it, build a wall. The world ends here.”)
Last year I tossed G.I. Joe’s Channing Tatum in with fellow movie lump Avatar’s Sam Worthington. But I take some of that back about Tatum. Despite looking like Josh Hartnett dipped in human growth hormone, the actor whipped up more charm than the script called for in Dear John and was genuinely funny in the recent dramedy The Dilemma.
In The Eagle Tatum continues to show acting growth while looking good in breastplates. (Though he still needs some sort of facial-echtomy to move his eyes a little further apart. Too often when he gets angry he looks like someone stole the supper dish from a ‘roided-out ferret.) But from here on out I’ll no longer greet news of his casting in a film with a groan.
McDonald leans toward Terrance Malick-esque images of leaf and stone, mist and smoke, but plot-wise The Eagle loses some momentum in the third act. Luckily there’s always another battle to be had to get it back—the film only truly falters at the very end when it tries to invoke a jaunty adventure tone, like a “Buddy Slave” movie. But for the most part if you enjoy amped-up Roman and British history by way of Hollywood, this is good-looking and entertaining stuff.
More of the cast and director of The Eagle from redbox:
- Channing Tatum in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and The Dilemma
- Jamie Bell in Defiance
- Donald Sutherland in The Mechanic
- Mark Strong in Robin Hood (on DVD and Blu-ray), Kick-Ass (on DVD and Blu-ray), and Sherlock Holmes