“The Eagle” takes us into the Scottish highlands with two armored young questers who seek to recover a lost golden emblem for Rome and provide hearty derring-do, in impressive 2-D, along the way.
Loaded with pulse and ambition, the movie is formulaic and fractured in focus, aiming to be both a serious human adventure and an entertaining action flick and achieving neither.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, written by Jeremy Brock and based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel, the film, like “Centurion,” explores the mystery of ancient Rome’s Ninth Legion, which vanished in Caledonia (now Scotland) in the year 120. The drama begins 20 years after the disappearance.
As in his “Last King of Scotland” and “State of Play,” Macdonald offers a central relationship in the form of an unlikely male pairing.
Young Roman soldier Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) commands a fort at the northern tip of Roman territory, which extends into Britain. He embarks on a mission into enemy terrain to learn what happened to the 5,000 men of the Ninth Legion and restore the honor of its leader, who was his father.
Also, Marcus aims to recover the Eagle, the gold symbol of Roman splendor, which vanished with the legion. Needing a companion who knows the native language, Marcus brings along Esca (Jamie Bell), a Caledonian slave he rescued from a deadly gladiator (in a scene designed to establish Marcus as an enlightened sort of Roman).
Esca has pledged his loyalty to Marcus, but hates all things Rome. Suspense builds over whether Marcus can trust him.
Action scenes alternate with more-serious episodes as Marcus and Esca advance. Eventually, they reach the land of the brutal Seal people.
To be sure, this swords-and-sandals shebang — gladiators, chariots, boar hunts, you name it — scores points as an enthusiastic, old-fashioned movie adventure complete with amazing scenery and efficiently staged battles.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not sustain depth or momentum, or come up with surprises as their genre material progresses.
Brock’s event-crammed adaptation unfolds connect-the-dots style, without allowing for significant emotional moments to sink in. While effort was made to cast American-accented actors as Romans and Brits as British characters, everyone sounds contemporary (most amusingly, Donald Sutherland, playing Marcus’ Uncle Aquila).
The purportedly complicated Marcus-Esca relationship is hampered by thin dialogue and the mismatched skills of the nuanced Bell and the, well, photogenic Tatum.
The film goes further out of whack at closing time, when it assumes the tone of a buddy comedy.
Sum total: an antiquity mishmash. Rent “Spartacus.”
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland
Written by Jeremy Brock
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Running time 1 hour 54 minutes