Screen Rant's Sandy Schaefer reviews The Eagle
The Eagle is quite simply one of the more tepid swords & sandals adventures to grace the silver screen in modern times. While other, recent entries in the genre have thrived on sheer bloody spectacle and emotional fanfare, this is a film that favors mood and atmosphere over visceral action.
Ultimately the movie falls flat because it lacks the substance to satisfy as an arthouse drama, and is far too muddled in structure and pacing to offer those in the mood for some mindless violence much bang for their buck.
Rosemary Sutcliff's historical adventure novel, "The Eagle of the Ninth" is the basis for this story, which takes place in Roman-ruled Britain circa 140 AD. The opening text of The Eagle reveals that some twenty years prior, the Ninth Legion of Rome, led by Flavius Aquila (Hungarian actor Aladár Laklóth), disappeared mysteriously in the uncharted highlands of Caledonia, and with them vanished a treasured symbol of honor - a golden emblem in the form of a magnificent eagle.
The film then introduces its protagonist to be one Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), son of Flavius and a young centurion himself, who has been assigned to command a post near the outskirts of Roman territory. There Marcus proves himself to be a more than competent general, ably leading his troops against an invading army and even risking his own life by charging down a pack of armored chariots so as to buy more time for his fellow soldiers to retreat to safety. Marcus ultimately suffers some severe and debilitating wounds for his efforts, which earns him respect in the eyes of his superiors - along with an honorable discharge, as he is no longer fit for service.
Disenchanted by his fortunes, Marcus is left in the care of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) and eventually acquires a body slave in the form of Esca (Jamie Bell), a Brit spared a gruesome death in the gladiator arena at Marcus' behest. When he is informed by the Legate Claudius (Dakin Matthews) of rumors that the Ninth Legion's prized emblem has been seen recently, Marcus recruits the mysterious Esca to cross over Hadrian's Wall and into Caledonia in order to recapture the Eagle and restore honor to his family's name.
The Eagle starts off at a lively pace for the first half hour or so, but slows considerably and fails to pick up again until the final twenty minutes. There are brief moments of combat peppered throughout the movie, but most of the action is restricted to the opening act and a small battle that serves as the climax. That wouldn't be a problem if the remainder of the running time was devoted to developing and fleshing out the film's characters and themes, but it fails to do that - and ultimately gives the audience little reason to care about the bond formed between Marcus and Esca or consider the implications of their strong beliefs about the true meaning and value of honor.
Neither Tatum or Bell flat out embarrass themselves with their performances, but they do fail to bring any sense of depth, charisma, or really even personality to their characters. The few scenes that require either actor to express an emotion other than stoicism or quiet frustration simply don't work and fail to be particularly moving. Even as the film strives to convince us that Marcus and Esca are developing a stronger sense of mutual respect and brotherly love for one another, it's never really seems apparent or even remotely believable. Tatum and Bell just seem to be rolling with the punches, more than anything.
Where The Eagle does excel is in its ability to capture the look and feel of life in its ancient world setting. The film was shot on location in Scotland and Hungary, and while director Kevin Macdonald doesn't always take full advantage of his surroundings, he does deliver some beautiful landscape visuals full of misty mountains, steely rivers, and woods that range from luminous and fertile to chilling and barren.
Props should also go out to the production and set design departments, since they do an excellent job of making everything from the chipped walls of the Roman architecture to the log-based fortress that Marcus presides over in the first act feel all the more real and textural. The costume and makeup team deserve credit as well, since they generally did an excellent job of making the film's characters also appear all the more real and authentic - with the exceptions of Tatum and Bell, who frankly look more like Calvin Klein models with bits of mud and blood occasionally smeared on their faces than anything else.
The handful of action sequences in the movie are a bit underwhelming, since they tend to be too darkly lit and chaotically shot. Macdonald decided to employ a lot of handicam cinematography in these scenes and while they're neither excessively shaky or over-edited, the fact remains that everything is shot at too close a distance, so it's often difficult to distinguish one character from another. The resulting clutter of swords, shields, clubs, axes, and limbs is unlikely to induce too many headaches, but it's not especially engaging either.
While Macdonald has worked in the thriller genre before and has proven himself capable of creating suspense, he's probably not very comfortable handling action and it shows here. The end result is that The Eagle ends up featuring only a few action sequences that are simply adequate in design, but lack the punch that some moviegoers will be looking for (that it's Rated PG-13 won't help, either). Those seeking a more thought-provoking tale of ancient Romans will find it all to be a bit ho-hum as well, since there's not much substance to the story, beyond what's apparent on the surface.
To sum it all up: The Eagle is neither especially good nor terrible. Mostly, it's just kind of... there.
Check out the official theatrical trailer for The Eagle below: