The soldiers of Rome’s fabled Ninth Legion may have disappeared nearly two millennia ago but Hollywood’s fascination with them remains. The Eagle directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is the second mid-budget action flick to involve the Ninth in as many years the first being Centurion a hack-and-slash B-movie from genre director Neil Marshall.
In comparison to Marshall’s film The Eagle is a bit classier in tone and considerably milder in content perhaps out of deference to its source material Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth a children's novel regarded by many as a classic. That little demographic detail might help explain Macdonald’s someone odd decision to cast Channing Tatum star of Step Up and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in the lead role of a second-century Roman Centurion. Tatum has played soldiers of various stripes before but never a commander and never in an earnest period piece like The Eagle; he fits the suit nicely but I fear he might be in over his head otherwise.
As the film is set in the year AD 140. 20 years prior the 5 000-strong Ninth Legion marched into Northern Britain under the leadership of a general named Flavius Aquila and never returned. Flavius’s son Marcus Aquila (Tatum) arrives at a remote outpost on the island determined to restore his family’s good name via feats of gallantry on the battlefield. He seems well on his way toward doing so too until an ill-fated encounter with an enemy chariot leaves him nearly crippled and he is declared unfit for further service.
While recuperating from his wounds Marcus receives word that the golden Eagle of the Ninth the lost legion’s official emblem has been seen in the hands of the Seal People one of several savage native tribes that roam the wilderness beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Attempting to recover this potent symbol of Rome’s glory might be a virtual suicide mission Marcus reasons but it might also be his only chance to remove the taint that his father’s ignominious defeat left upon his family’s reputation.
And so he endeavors to find it bringing along his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) a former prisoner of war whose well-groomed mane suggests that his Roman captors were not so cruel as to deny him access to conditioner and a blow-dryer. He seethes with resentment toward Marcus whose Centurion predecessors pillaged his tribe just a few years prior but he is nonetheless bound by honor to serve him after being spared from the gladiator’s blade through Marcus’s intervention.
The thrust of the film is Marcus’s relationship with Esca which begins as a prickly culture-clash but gradually evolves into a sincere brotherly bond forged by various skirmishes with local warriors amidst the cold and forbidding landscape of Caledonia (now Scotland). You’ll find very little indication of this in The Eagle’s opening act however. Macdonald devotes the first 25 minutes or so to setting up an entirely different film – a more conventional sword-and-sandals tale of an undermanned garrison fending off barbarian sieges -- before resetting the narrative and fixing on the bromantic angle that carries it through to the closing credits.
The prolonged dual set-ups disrupt the natural action-movie rhythm and The Eagle enters a somnolent phase at a point when it feels as if it should be building momentum. The lull gives us far too much time to contemplate Tatum’s shifting accent which sometimes resembles an Irish brogue other times a more contemporary Southern-American-Meathead intonation. For whatever reason Macdonald either didn’t notice the inconsistency or didn’t consider it germane to the film’s proceedings. It’s a shame because it pierces the layer of authenticity that the director so carefully – and convincingly – labors to create. If this is second-century Britain what's that kid from Alabama doing here?