Filmmakers give the legend of Rome’s missing Ninth Legion another go, following the 2010 release of Centurion. The Eagle is far more watchable and far less bloody, but it does ask the audience to imagine Channing Tatum as a Roman centurion. While the actor’s surprisingly malleable body suits several roles and he did manage some humorous self-mockery in 21 Jump Street, he is all manners out of place as a commander bent on reclaiming his family’s honor.
Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, the son of a legionary of the Ninth that disappeared north of Hadrian’s Wall. After his garrison is attacked, he returns home to recover from his injuries. There, he saves a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), from death in the gladiator ring. It is a scene scripted for the second century but one that Tatum delivers with the gusto of an extra on Friday Night Lights. The crowd cheers wildly for Esca to be executed but has a change of heart when Marcus convinces them otherwise. “Getcho thumbs up!” he barks in his best attempt at a British accent.
Eventually Marcus heads north of the wall in search of the missing eagle standard of the lost legion, unable to stand idly by and “listen to some silk ass politician’s son piss on [his] family’s name” Boy ain’t havin’ none of that shit. So he strings along his new Celt slave, confident that Esca will not betray him.
Here the film ventures into themes of honor and duty, with varying degrees of success. Beyond the borders of Rome, Marcus finds himself dependent on Esca, who is familiar with the terrain and the language. Nevertheless, when he is brought to heel and humiliated by a northern tribe, he vows to kill his slave. Esca, meanwhile, recognizes his position has shifted but has also promised to repay his life debt. Tatum and Bell have enough chemistry to limp through the story, but their characters should be much more appealing than they are. Tatum can move his hips but does not seem to do as much with his face, which conveys half-confused detachment for much of the film. Likewise, Bell is set on scowl and brow-furrow mode and his character lacks some of the vulnerability he so often brings to his roles.
The movie also slides from a swords and sandals epic into an old cowboys and Indians adventure. The primary antagonists, the ferocious Seal People, sport mohawks and decorate themselves in war paint; they also dance and whoop around a fire, just to drive the point home. The dynamic is framed as one between the civilized and the savages, even though the relationship between Marcus and Esca attempts to bridge that.
The overall look of the film is less problematic and actually works quite well. The camera is content to linger on the expansive and beautiful landscape and allow the characters to meander in and out of the frame. Instead of overwhelming the story with digital warriors, conflicts are scaled down so as to emphasize the players without sacrificing the intensity of the action. The result is a pared down but focused and accessible story.
Prod: Duncan Kenworthy
Dir: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Jeremy Brock
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Denis O’Hare, Douglas Henshall, Paul Ritter, Dakin Matthews, Pip Carter, Ned Dennehy
Time: 114 min
Lang: English, some Gaelic
Country: United Kingdom