The Austin Chronicle

The Eagle

Rated PG-13, 114 min. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Denis O’Hare.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 11, 2011

The Eagle is an old-fashioned boys' adventure tale that has nary a love interest (or even a female speaking part) nor bloody battle injury to scar its PG-13 innocence. That means this sword-and-sandals epic is also a mildly engaging and roughly historical action picture. Based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s 1954 bestselling novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, the film tells the story of a second century Roman general and his slave in the wilds of what was then Britannia’s northern frontier – the unknown world of Caledonia (or modern-day Scotland) beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Geographically challenged viewers will be calmed by the film’s preface, which lays out the film’s scope and its motivating story about the mysterious disappearance in Caledonia of 5,000 Roman centurions of the legendary Ninth Legion, along with their totemic metal eagle. Twenty years after their ignominious end, a young new general Marcus Aquila (Tatum) arrives on the scene with a personal mission to solve the mystery and restore the good name of his father, who had been the the Ninth Legion’s commander. Marcus is accompanied by his slave Esca (Bell), who is the son of a vanquished tribal leader from the north. Bell (Billy Elliot) lends dimension to his character while Tatum adds mostly a manly stoicism, but the pairing of the two is, nevertheless, complementary. Despite the defensive and primitive-seeming tribal groups with which they come into contact, Marcus and Esca are unable to coax much vitality from the storyline. The Eagle is rife with moral lessons about resentment toward occupying forces and the efficacy of waging battles on an enemy’s indigenous turf. Marcus and Esca even swap master and servant roles in order to save their hides during one escapade. But the depths of the lessons befits the story’s genesis as a boys’ adventure tale, and there is no emotional anchor for the story. It’s easy to understand native Glaswegian Macdonald’s interest in this film, especially given his status as the director of historically based documentaries (One Day in September) and features (The Last King of Scotland). The film reunites him with screenwriter Jeremy Brock, who also penned The Last King of Scotland. Given that the characterizations and historical details can often be as sketchy as the film’s soft-focus backgrounds and moral compass, The Eagle tepidly takes flight but fails to soar.

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