Part epic, part action flick … combined into one mediocre at best film
The downside of doing any sort of swords and sandals film is that you get stuck between two genres. The first is the big epic of Hollywood lore, the kind that garnered Oscars for plenty of films and was a staple of early cinema. A modern film like Gladiator has been modern Hollywood’s finest example of the genre, a massively expensive blockbuster that wound up with an armful of Oscars. The other type of swords and sandals film that Hollywood seems to be fixated on lately is turning the genre into a tight action film emulating the “buddy cop” formula in many ways. Michael Fassbender starrer Centurion is perhaps the best of an excessively mediocre stab at the genre. The latest attempt ending in mediocrity is The Eagle, based off the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Jeremy Brock.
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a Roman centurion and son of a famous Roman commander, posted to Britain with his first command. His father commanded the legendary Roman Ninth Legion, legendary for venturing into the UK and disappearing. Aquila’s family has lost their honor due to his father disappearing, taking the Legion’s famed Eagle Standard with him, and Marcus has dreamed of finding it and redeeming his family. When the Standard is spotted in Caledonia (modern day Scotland), Marcus and a young slave (Jamie Bell) venture into enemy territory to find it and in the process both their perspectives change. Throw in some action sequences, and some strong extended cameo performances from Mark Strong and Donald Sutherland, and you have the potential for a first rate swords and sandals action film on more than a surface level.
There’s something deep inside the film, buried for most of it but coming out in bursts, about two sons of enemies coming together for a common cause. Tatum and Bell aren’t known for brilliant dramatic performances, Bell’s BAFTA for Billy Elliot the biggest honor between the two, but they have just enough chemistry with one another to make it interesting. In another life they’d have probably been good friends but in this they are on the opposite sides of a battle between Roman imperialism and native resistance. There’s something grander about honor in both life and combat that The Eagle alludes to but never quite gets a handle on because it ventures too often into action movie clichés & sequences as opposed to the more epic style Kevin MacDonald seems to be going for.
This is a film that has a hard time figuring out whether it’s a slick action film or an extended epic, walking the fine line in the middle between them both that leaves The Eagle more like mismatched halves of better films meshed into one decent one. It doesn’t help that Kevin MacDonald apparently doesn’t know how to film an action sequence. Known for a more static camera and dialogue-oriented films, MacDonald has the same sort of “style” that Rob Zombie brought to his remake of Halloween in using poor lighting and a hand held camera to muddy up any sort of great imagery that could come out of some action sequences that are set up fairly well. His intention is to get us into the mix of the action, to feel the urgency and confusion in combat & battle, but all it does is make it confusing.
The Eagle does just enough good to make it intriguing on a number of levels, and manages to get a better than normal performance from its stars, but does so much poorly in its presentation that it falls back to the pit of mediocrity that films like The Last Legion inhabit.
Director: Kevin MacDonald Notable Cast: Channing Tatum, Mark Strong, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Bell Writer(s): Jeremy Brock based off the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff