My high school European History teacher joked that the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t holy, Roman, or an Empire. Similarly, Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle is a dramatic Roman action flick than isn’t particularly dramatic, Roman, or action-packed. Everywhere The Eagle could make its mark, it comes up short. The relationship between the main characters is underdeveloped, there’s very little sense of consistency or setting, and the action is poorly-shot and awkwardly-bloodless. Despite the presence of actor Jamie Bell and the usually reliable Macdonald at the helm, The Eagle never manages to take flight.
Like last year’s Centurion, The Eagle uses the mysterious disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion as the basis for its story. In this telling, the protagonist is Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), a young commander whose father was the leader of the disgraced 9th. Since the Ninth Legion lost its standard, a golden Eagle, Aquila’s name has fallen into disrepute (although apparently not so low that he can’t get his own command). Marcus’ wishes to reclaim his family’s honor and while he valiantly defends his outpost and rescues his men from the savage natives of Northern Britain, he’s injured and given an honorable discharge. Still not satisfied, he chooses to head into enemy territory to find the Eagle with bitter-yet-loyal slave Esca (Bell) as his only companion and guide.
The relationship between Marcus and Esca should be the beating heart of The Eagle but it barely manages a pulse. There are plenty of scenes and shots of the two wandering the countryside, but the film doesn’t want to take the time and build their friendship. The movie shows them as unsentimental partners and then jumps right to painful betrayal before revealing brotherly love. It does nothing in between to earn this transformation. Marcus doesn’t pause to understand Esca’s hatred for him and Esca doesn’t seem interested in Marcus’ quest to redeem the Aquila name. While I usually find Tatum a dull on-screen presence, it’s tough to fault him for his work in The Eagle because there character on the page is never more than “Must redeem honor.” Granted, an actor with more charisma could have done slightly more with the role (as Bell does with Esca), but Macdonald prefers that his main characters walk around silently than actually have a conversation.
Sadly, Macdonald’s entire approach seems scattershot and disinterested. While I’ve enjoyed his previously films State of Play and Touching the Void, with The Eagle, he barely seems to have a grasp on the material. I don’t expect a historically-accurate movie and for all of the characters to speak Latin. But usually, when a film is set during ancient Rome or Greece, characters tend to talk with a proper British accent to let you know that it’s a different time period. That seems to be Channing’s approach when he first walks onto his base at the beginning of the movie. Then he’s greeted by a soldier (Denis O’Hare) who speaks in perfect American. When O’Hare talks, you can almost see the coffee he has waiting for him off screen. This lack of care expands to the point where you wonder if Macdonald was even paying attention. At one point in the film, we learn about the “Seal People” of the North, and while that’s obviously their tribe name, it’s hard not to giggle and think that they neighbor the Crab People, who, according to South Park, taste like crab, but talk like people.
Even the action scenes are haphazard. It’s odd that Macdonald avoids the tense, drama-packed dialogue scenes he pulled off so well in State of Play and The Last King of Scotland, but feels the need to throw us into crappy fight scenes. If you ever need a primer on how not to shoot swordfights, then take some time with The Eagle. Throwing the camera off the tripod and slightly speeding up the visuals does not an exciting action scene make. Every swordfight feels stiff and slow and if the sound was louder, you could probably hear the actors quietly counting out their combinations. Also, if you’ve seen Centurion, then The Eagle will feel rather soft by comparison. Not every Roman action film needs to be as gory as Centurion, but it does call attention to the fact that a majority of the cuts seem designed to avoid the brutal violence. In a more engaging picture, that technique can help to capture the viewer’s imagination and let them envision what horrors are happening off-screen. But in The Eagle, it’s simply a reminder that “Oh, so that’s how they’re getting a PG-13.”
The only thing that’s epic about The Eagle is that it feels like an epic game of Capture the Flag because the story never feels larger or more meaningful than a children’s game. The entire goal is to get The Eagle of the Ninth (the film’s original title) and return home. Any drama, historical verisimilitude, or exciting action is left by the wayside in favor of trudging through the wilderness, ignoring the setting, and inept fight scenes.