Flight of ‘The Eagle’ fails to dazzle

By Brian Canova

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“The Eagle” exceeds expectations. It’s got adventure, tension, surprisingly picturesque cinematography and even a solid soundtrack elevating the excitement with a mix of Celtic music and tribal drum lines. But it fails to connect and, in the end, it is just Channing Tatum prancing around in a toga and a frat boy haircut waxing poetic about honor and redemption.

“The Eagle” is directed by Kevin McDonald (“State of Play,” “The Last King of Scotland”), and is based on the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” written by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Circa 200 A.D., Marcus Aquila (Tatum) takes command of a fortified outpost on the northernmost barrier of the Roman Empire’s territory. A descendent in a long line of generals and commanders, Aquila enjoys high rank and prestige at a young age, and although never explicitly stated, from the reactions and expressions of his fellow men, this is probably based more on lineage than actual merit. As one might anticipate, the film wastes little time letting Aquila prove otherwise as he risks his life to save his men in an anti-climactic blaze of glory.

The first half of the movie is very hard to take seriously. It lacks any semblance of an antiquated feel, tone or even look in many parts. It’s the film’s biggest pitfall and it applies across the board, from the set design to the wardrobes, and above all else, the dialogue. The candor of the characters’ speech is all wrong, or at the very least, doesn’t fit with what we’ve come to expect from other likeminded films set in this time period. Tatum is mockable in every possible way, from his haircut to his feigned attempts at conveying impassioned emotion and enthusiasm. The highlight of the first 30 minutes is  Donald Sutherland, playing Aquila’s uncle, who’s always a welcomed addition on the screen, even if it’s always in exactly the same role.

After his moment of heroism in which he sustains serious injuries, he’s brought away from the outermost post to the heart of the empire, where he receives medical treatment and around-the-clock care at his uncle’s home. Medals and honors are awarded to him for his deeds, and he’s also given an honorable discharge in light of his physical injuries. This doesn’t go over well with Aquila, who refuses to accept this impediment to his thirst for conquest and drive to restore his family’s good name (Aquila’s father led a legion of men past the northernmost rim of the empire and they were never seen again). Tatum’s acting in this scene is particularly laughable although the film makes it past it.

Once Esca (Jamie Bell) is introduced as Aquila’s slave, the plot picks up and they venture off past the northern barrier of Rome’s territory, trekking through unrelenting rains, heavy woods and snow capped mountain ranges. Their objective is to find and bring back to Rome the prized golden eagle that had been carried into battle throughout Rome’s history and was lost with his father’s legion. If Aquila can’t return to his post as Commander to restore his family’s honor, he can restore it with the safe return of the fabled golden eagle, goes the logic.

Their journey takes them across England’s countryside and this is where the cinematography is allowed to shine. Wide shots of rolling hills and stretching plains before mountainous peaks dotting the horizon characterize the images of their travels. The last half of the film takes on a feel in stark contrast to the first half, and does better at drawing the viewer in. Conversations between Aquila and his slave add bits of depth to the storyline, although the film chokes on its own lack of morally praiseworthy conventions in the interest of distilling any deeper or greater wisdoms from its plot. But at the same time, it isn’t trying to draw them either.

If you’re at all allured to the film from its trailers or its advertisements knowing  who holds the leading role, it’s a fair bet that you’ll like what you see. But for fans of Gladiator or the TV series, “Rome,” or for that matter, history buffs of any sort, rest assured this is not the film for you.

Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected]