Last year, a smallish British film called ‘Centurion‘ opened. It came and went, despite the sizable buzz surrounding its leading man Michael Fassbender and director Neil Marshall (who previously made ‘The Descent‘ and ‘Dog Soldiers‘). It was about the fabled Ninth Legion, a squad of Roman soldiers some 5,000 strong, who disappeared into the Scottish mist, never to be heard from again. While ‘Centurion’ dealt with the legion’s disappearance, this week’s ‘The Eagle’ (based on a beloved 1954 young adult novel ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’) contemplates what the aftermath of their disappearance would mean for those Roman soldiers who survived.
‘The Eagle’ picks up many years after the legion goes missing. The son of the legion’s leader, played by handsome cipher Channing Tatum, is still burdened by the shame of the family name. The conflict between the Romans and the indigenous population continues to be contentious. After he’s injured in battle, our heroic centurion is sent to his uncle’s house, near the wall that was erected after the Ninth Legion fell, to recuperate. (It effectively establishes the boundary that the Romans will not cross.)
It’s here that he ends up saving the life of a young Scottish slave (Jamie Bell), while taking ownership of him. It’s also where he hatches a plot. With his slave (who can speak to the indigenous Scots), they will infiltrate the enemy territory and steal back the titular eagle: a gold-plated masthead that served as the symbolic heart of the Ninth Legion.
If you haven’t gathered by now, ‘The Eagle’ is a kind of rip-roaring boys’ adventure story. There’s not a whole lot of thematic complexity, but it’s beautifully put together. The movie was directed by Kevin Macdonald, who made ‘Last King of Scotland‘ and ‘State of Play‘. It was also photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, one of cinema’s most arresting visual stylists. (Anyone responsible for ‘Antichrist‘ and ‘Slumdog Millioniare‘ deserves mad props.)
As our hero and his slavish sidekick expand their quest, the movie intensifies appropriately. (My interest skyrocketed when Mark Strong shows up as a long lost legionnaire.) However, the film is hampered by a startling lack of humor, an overtly straightforward narrative path, and a relationship about two meaningful glances away from being the Roman version of ‘Brokeback Mountain‘.
It’s also worth mentioning that the movie kind of pales in comparison to ‘Centurion’. That film was feisty and funny and relentlessly violent. It had attitude to spare. What’s more, ‘Centurion’ was anchored by a lead performance from Michael Fassbender, one of the most talented young actors working today. He brought the appropriate amount of knowledgeable bloodlust. He could swing that sword with the best of them, but was also enriched with sensation that it was all historical fun. Channing Tatum, showing slightly more dimensionality than usual, is rigidly brutish in a trying, dogged way. No matter how gorgeously put together ‘The Eagle’ may be, it’s still the same old, same old. With a PG-13 rating, to boot – which means no visceral, spurting decapitations. Boo.