In The Eagle, a young Roman officer named Marcus Aquila has just gotten promoted.
His first command is at the edge of the world...Scotland. Years before, the five thousand soldiers who formed the famous Ninth Legion disappeared behind Hadrian's Wall, captured and presumed killed by the Celts. No one goes beyond the wall now, and Aquila, whose father led the legion, is considered bad luck.
After receiving an injury in a brave attempt to save his men, he's given an honorable discharge and sent to live with his uncle, played by Donald Sutherland. While out for a fun day at the arena, he saves a British slave from certain death. Esca (Jamie Bell) swears loyalty for the service.
Hanging with your old uncle and limping around is no fun, of course. Once his injury is all fixed up, he decides to head out beyond the wall and retrieve the symbol of the Ninth, the eagle statue. Esca, who speaks the language, guides him to the ferocious Seal People. So will Esca betray him or remain loyal? Will Aquila be able to return the eagle to his people and restore his father's name? Does the film do justice to the Rosemary Sutcliff novel from 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth?
No. And there are so many reasons for that it's almost hard to list them all. So let's start with the most obvious -- the accents. In the press notes for the film, we're told that the decision to have all the Romans speak with American accents was made to give them a closer tie to the soldiers of today. Nice high concept and it makes sense in theory. In practice, it's almost laughable. Channing Tatum, with his usual deadpan expression, can't decide if he's going to speak normally or try out that British accent he learned in school. He floats back and forth between them and it's a disaster. A few of the soldiers sound like they're from Brooklyn. It's actually embarrassing to hear Donald Sutherland speak in his normal voice while wearing a bed sheet. Look, this might have worked if everyone had the same American accent. And then you have Jamie Bell with a British accent and a zillion Celts speaking Scottish Gaelic.
Now, not a lot of information is known about the people in the north of Scotland, but from the reading I've done, I don't think they were like the Seal People we see on the screen. These guys are covered in mud that magically doesn't wash off in the rain or after days of hunting down Aquila and Esca. It doesn't streak or flake...any woman who has ever worn a mud mask knows that is ridiculous. Of course, when one of them is killed and ends up in the water for a second, it disappears immediately. The Seal People act like Maori warriors and don't seem to have a stitch of humanity. Sure, we get a sense of the "otherness" of the tribe, but for anyone who has done any sort of research on the people of Scotland, it's almost laughable.
Tatum tries harder here than in any film he's done in recent memory, but the only moments that work are the scenes between Aquila and Esca. These two reportedly became great friends on the set and it's obvious in the film. But the scenes between Aquila and his uncle, troop scenes, etc. all fall flat. Bell, however, seems to be in a different film altogether. While the rest of the actors appear to be almost embarrassed by their performances, Bell takes it seriously. I wish I'd seen the film he thought he was in. But then, has Bell ever given an unlovable performance? Not if you ask me. I love that guy and I admire his commitment to what was a mess of a story.
The Eagle is beautifully shot and one wishes as much attention had been paid to the story. So, Aquila's injury is so bad he can't be a soldier anymore? But wait...a different doctor comes in and it's totally fine. Aquila is terribly upset that he can't command soldiers, but when his leg is fixed he decides to go on a suicide mission instead of heading back to his troops.
A slave, who could easily gain his freedom on the other side of the wall, decides that it's better to risk his life for his master...before they become best buds? Spoiler alert, but not one of the surviving soldiers decides to attempt to go home and instead choose to become one of the unwashed Celts. A bunch of older guys manage to defeat what we are told are some of the most ferocious warriors out there...and the ones who kicked the asses of five thousand of their number years before. It doesn't matter how pretty the landscape is -- the story is a disaster.
Outside of Bell's performance and a few well-choreographed fight scenes, The Eagle is almost unwatchable, unless you're a 13-year-old boy who just wants to see some sword action. The end of the film is left open for a possible sequel. Don't hold your breath.
The Eagle review
Out of five stars...