There are some historical stories so fascinating, mysterious, and incredible that audiences can never tire of seeing the tale played out on the silver screen again and again. This is purportedly one of them.
At the height of Rome’s dominance over all things Earth-bound the legendary Ninth Legion was reportedly sent into Caledonia (modern day Scotland) to find, defeat, and subjugate the Picts. They never returned, and the mystery remains to this day.
Two decades later a young Roman soldier named Marcus Aquila (Cardboard Tatum) volunteers for a command that puts him within shouting distance of the land that swallowed the legion… and his father who led them. He wants to solve the mystery and restore his family’s good name by recovering the legion’s lost Eagle emblem. Along for the journey is a Scottish slave named Esca (Jamie Bell) whose life was spared by Marcus in the Roman arena. Together they’ll face tests of their valor, loyalty, and heterosexuality.
The historical accuracy of the missing legion has been in question for centuries, but that hasn’t stopped films like Centurion and The Last Legion from presenting what-if scenarios served up as entertainment. Those two succeeded to varying degrees due to the quality of the story they’re telling and of the actors onscreen. But any points The Eagle earns from its vaguely original twist on the story are immediately negated by the presence of Tatum. Well, “presence” is really too strong of a word.
Tatum sleepwalks through the role raising and lowering his voice in place of tone or inflection. There’s not a single scene where he shows emotion or appears human. His quest brings him close to death and face to face with the mystery of his father’s disappearance, but you’d never know it by watching his expressions. Happy, angry, hungry, pained… it all looks the same. It all sounds identical too as he speaks his lines with all the enthusiasm and spark of a wet loincloth.
But Tatum’s not the worst inanimate object involved in the film. That would be the script by Jeremy Brock.
“Damn the darkness,” Marcus says early on as he wonders what fresh terrors lay beyond the reach of their torches. Like much of the script he’s telling us something we can already see and comprehend for ourselves. Worse still are the stretches of dialogue spoken solely as a means to fill us in on the story elements we should be seeing. A prime example of which is the character of Uncle Expositionus Aquila (Donald Sutherland) whose every word is spent telling viewers about something that happened in the past or something that’s happening currently. “Look, fun.”
Thankfully the characters shut up long enough periodically to bash some skulls and knock swords, but even that joy comes to an end quickly. The fight editing is of the close-up and fast cut variety making it difficult at times to tell who’s doing what to whom. Even worse though is the decision to make this a bloodless, PG-13 affair. For all the combat and death by bladed weapon there is very little blood visible onscreen. Close to none actually. There are even two throat-slitting scenes where the sound seems to fade out so as not to infer that flesh is being sliced. The film works so hard to avoid an R-rating that it ends up avoiding anything resembling visceral excitement as well.
Their journey takes them through some truly stunning locales, and it is with these non-action oriented visuals that director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland) finds his true voice. The duo comes in contact and conflict with a tribe called the Seal People, named ironically for their craggy white faces, and viewers are treated to some beautifully shot ceremonial dances and a chase through the rocky mountains and woods. The chase builds a suspenseful expectation, but that’s quickly squashed by a shaky revelation and the aforementioned poor fight editing.
Other positives of note include Bell’s performance as a slave honor bound to a man and a cause he detests. It’s a tricky line to walk and it gets tested in obvious ways when he needs to convince the Seal People that he is in fact the master over the Roman. The film does score points for the complete absence of speaking roles for women… it’s a ballsy move, and in means there’s no artificial romance forced into the story simply for the sake of it. (Their absence can only mean that Spartacus: Blood & Sand lied about what life was like back then.) A love that dare not speak its name threatens to fill that void more than once as the two men bond in close quarters, but the film never commits to it with anything more than a wayward glance and a reach around. (Relax, of course I’m joking about the wayward glance.)
There’s a core of something quite good to be found within The Eagle, but it’s drowned in a morass of bland mediocrity. Honor and loyalty are presented in such a way as to raise questions about the sincerity and validity of the very concepts, but even as the film seems to cast doubt on the value of what was in truth an imperialistic steamroller it does an about-face and relies on that very honor for closure anyway. A worthwhile action element could have at least made things exciting to watch, but that too is muted. Ah well, maybe the next iteration of the tale will get it right.
The Upside: No romances forcibly shoehorned into the story (although Tatum and Bell come close a couple times); Bell is fine; Denis O’ Hare appears briefly
The Downside: Tatum is charisma free; much of the script features characters narrating and interpreting the events onscreen; film is bloodless and goes out of its way to avoid an R-rating
On the Side: The original title of the film was The Eagle of the Ninth.