Do people still like historical action pieces? Of course the genre has produced some classics, ala Gladiator and Braveheart, but in the past few years it seems like these epic battle films miss just as often as they hit. Keep in mind, for every Gladiator, there’s also a Troy. It’s not a hard genre to make an adequate movie in, but it’s a ridiculously difficult genre to make a great movie in. Case in point, The Eagle.
Set in 140 AD, The Eagle stars Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila, a soldier in Roman-ruled Britain who’s discharged from the army after getting injured in battle. Determined to win back glory for his family name, Marcus sets out on a quest to find the Eagle, a golden emblem of Rome’s greatness that was lost years ago by his father. Since the Eagle is somewhere in the unconquered Caledonian highlands, across Hadrian’s Wall, Marcus takes along his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell), whom he saves from death earlier in the movie, to help him navigate the unknown terrain.
The first half of The Eagle is painfully dull. Although the beginning of the film includes a decent action sequence, almost everything before they cross over Hadrian’s Wall, and even some of what happens after, is simply boring. However, the movie picks up a bit as they get closer to finding the Eagle, and the climax includes a terrific battle sequence.
Channing Tatum proves (barely) that he doesn’t always have to talk like a white rapper here, although he doesn’t do much of anything else. Jamie Bell’s performance might be worth talking about, well, if it was worth talking about. It’s not that Bell isn’t consistent; he does a fine job with Esca. Unfortunately, there’s just not much for him to work with here. The book the film is based on supposedly has Marcus and Esca becoming close right off the bat, but in the movie they have to build a certain trust with each other. This isn’t a problem in principle, and for cinematic purposes it certainly makes sense, serving to add another layer of conflict to the film.
However, everything that happens between Marcus and Esca is just so predictable that it’s hard to get invested in any of it; first they don’t understand each other, then they start to a little bit, then it seems like one of them betrays the other. Other than what felt like some displaced sexual tension between the two, there’s really nothing here that hasn’t been done a thousand times before. Make sure, as well, to look out for Tahir Rahim, of last year’s A Prophet, delivering another excellent turn as a vicious young leader from the hostile tribe of the Painted Seal people.
Director Kevin Macdonald, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker before moving to narrative with movies like The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, definitely knows what he’s doing, and the film is overall very well shot. The handheld camera of The Eagle sort of makes it the anti-300, and the very nature of the story (it’s about the specific journey of two people) gives it a slightly more intimate feel than most of the other films in this genre. Despite this, Macdonald, for as competent as he may be, still isn’t talented enough to save The Eagle. It’s not an out and out bad movie, but it’s far from a good one. But hey, since it’s a historical action film, that’s not really a big surprise.