“The Eagle,” from director Kevin McDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), is an epic game of Capture the Flag, seasoned with a dash of “Trading Places.” If that sounds like fun, it is.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” the film follows Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) and his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), on a quest to restore the Aquila family name by retrieving the Eagle standard that disappeared some 20 years earlier, along with the Ninth Legion, when it was under the command of Marcus’ dad.
McDonald does an amazing job of recreating Roman life in lower Brittany, staging battles and creating a tribe of “Seal people” with a budget somewhere south of $25 million. According to Richard Billows, a professor of Roman history at Columbia University, who attended the film with us, about the only thing McDonald got seriously wrong was a brief moment in a battle scene where Marcus instructs his men to retreat in the face of a charging chariot--if you think about, trying to outrun a horse is just dumb. It turns out that Centurions were trained to form a wall and stand their ground, thereby forcing the horse to stop in its tracks.
Channing Tatum was the best thing about the mostly dreadful romcom “The Dilemma,” and his “Son of No One” reportedly sparked walkouts and confusion at Sundance. In “The Eagle” he finds himself on more solid footing, surrounded by talents like Jamie Bell, Tahar Rahim and Denis O’Hare. Marcus doesn’t demand much of Tatum emotionally, but he delivers, making his shamed Centurion a sympathetic figure eager to prove his mettle.
Bell and Rahim both do great work as men chaffing at Marcus’ assumption of superiority. Bell nicely conveys the struggle within Esca between his desire to kill Marcus and his debt to him for having saved his life. While Rahim somehow communicates volumes of resentment from behind a mask of blue-gray mud. Sutherland’s performance as Marcus’s uncle is a mystery, he plays the part like he’s living in Santa Barbara circa 1978—there’s nothing short of his robe that say “ancient Rome.”
In addition to being an adventure and a bro-mance (just wait for the inevitable “Brokeback Eagle” montage, it’s gonna be awesome), “The Eagle” very deftly says quite a bit about class. As they near the end of their journey, Marcus and Esca must switch roles as master and slave. But McDonald resists pointing directly at the shift in dynamics, instead letting the struggle play out organically.
And thank god, because when we first meet Esca, he’s been thrust into an arena to be killed by a gladiator for the amusement of paying spectators. Why we need Sutherland doing play-by-play explaining Esca’s refusal to fight is anyone’s guess, but it manages to suck all the drama out of the moment.
McDonald does give in to some of the dopey swords-and-sandals conventions that plague the genre, but ultimately The Eagle” succeeds on its own terms as a small intimate film about a great Roman centurion determined to restore his honor.