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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 11, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 06
Gorgeous Eagle a sumptuous unfocused mess
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Gorgeous Eagle a sumptuous unfocused mess

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Eagle
Opening February 11


It is 140 A.D. and Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) has arrived at a remote outpost in Britain to restore his family's honor and clear his father's name of wrongdoing. Two decades prior, his dad led the 5,000-man Roman Ninth Legion into the wilds of the region, where all of them disappeared in what must have been some sort of massacre and lost their sacred golden emblem, the pride of their countrymen, in the process.

Early in his tenure leading his men, Marcus made a heroic stand against an unspeakable horde of Pict attackers. Although he saved the garrison, he was hopelessly wounded, discharged from the army, and shipped to his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland) to live out the rest of his days in peace and harmony.

This does not sit well with Marcus, and he wills himself back into fighting shape. Those in power do not see the need to send him back to the army, insisting the centurion's fighting days are behind him. But after rumors that the golden eagle of the Ninth has been seen in the remote nether regions of Britain, Marcus heads into the unexplored country to retrieve it with only a Briton slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), whose life he spared in the gladiatorial arena, as his guide.

Based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, director Kevin Macdonald's (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) much-delayed medieval mismatched buddy adventure The Eagle is as handsomely mounted a production as any I could have imagined. With incredible production design by Michael Carlin (In Bruges), sensational cinematography by the great Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours), and featuring a pair of superb battle sequences that bookend the production, there is plenty of eye-candy to go around. But Jeremy Brock's (Brideshead Revisited) screenplay is wildly uneven, and without any sort of clear point of view, the climactic moments are so disjointed and unfocused that the result is frustrating.

The core of things here is the relationship between Marcus and Esca. The idea is simple enough, as one learns from the other and both come to realize that neither is as deplorable a monster as their respective cultures imagine. The Roman comes to believe the empire isn't such a great thing after all, while the latter learns that not every one of his enemies is as cold-blooded and as evil as he has been led to believe. Both have something to offer the another, and they become friends as their search for the eagle intensifies.

Problem is, unlike Neil Marshall's highly underrated and thrilling Centurion (which this movie has a lot in common with), Macdonald and Brock don't have a clear idea of what it is they're saying. They want to walk a thin line where they keep from demonizing either side of the equation, trying to give the Romans and the Britons equal share in the calamities facing their respective peoples.

But they can't stick to it. At a certain point, the pair begin to romanticize the honor of the Romans and play up the supposed demonic nature of the Britons, resulting in a final battle that, while magnificently staged, takes one side over the other, reducing the viewer's emotional investment in the outcome to zero. It's a horrible way to go out, as the murky and muddy moral waters that much of the plot waded through suddenly give way to buddy flick heroics more appropriate to Lethal Weapon.

Marshall realized that the important story was the one of survival and brotherhood - that both Roman and Briton could succumb to gross injustice and that neither completely deserved to rule. It was this individual effort, this Herculean journey, that allowed Centurion to resonate, making that B-grade blood-filled epic a lot more powerful and lasting than it would have been otherwise.

Here, the only thing making Macdonald's epic worthy of a look are its technical achievements. The film can be breathtaking, and I'd be lying if I said I was ever bored sitting there in the theatre taking it in. It is a visual spectacle filled with sights and sounds that held me spellbound, and it was only when the climactic sequences began their inevitable journey to completion that the plot's shortcomings became an unavoidable distraction.

I should say that while Bell unsurprisingly steals the picture, and while A Prophet star Tahar Rahim and the almost always reliable Mark Strong have their respective moments, I have to admit Tatum gives arguably the best, most steely-eyed and focused performance of his career. Problems with a weird, Costner-level accent aside, the actor manages to mine depths and to go places he hasn't in the past, which shows his potential for emotional complexities.

If only the movie didn't leave such a nasty and bitter taste in my mouth. The Eagle sounds good and looks better, but as a cohesive whole, it is sadly lacking in a number of vital areas. It falls apart at the end, unsure about what it wants to say and uncomfortable about the best way to do it. Instead, Macdonald and Brock resort to buddy film clichés, which made my goodwill towards the picture vanish just as completely as the Roman Empire itself.

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