Kevin Macdonald, the British director who brought us the likes of Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland and State of Play suffers his first major misfire with his latest offering The Eagle; an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth. A sword and sandals piece, The Eagle follows Marcus Flavia Aquila (Channing Tatum), a Roman legionary who seeks to restore honour to his besmirched family name by recovering the symbolic golden eagle, which his late father lost in battle, along with his whole legion (the ninth), during an infamously ill-fated attempt to conquer northern Briton.
Accompanying him on this near suicidal quest is his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) who’s family suffered so mercilessly at the hands of the Roman invaders that his father decided it better to kill his mother than leave her to be raped and slaughtered by the conquering soldiers. Not exactly a match made in bromantic heaven then. Unfortunately, this unlikely relationship isn’t given the chance to develop through the old adage of male bonding either; with simmering hatred and smouldering silences between the two favoured instead.
Sure, there are measly attempts (well, perhaps one) at vague relationship development between the two but the dialogue is so woefully corny that any likelihood they would ever actually get on is totally dashed by the fact that they probably think each other conversationally retarded. Thus, the film is built on a paper thin relationship between its two central characters. Again, probably not the best way to inspire an budding bromance from adverse circumstances then.
Written in the dusty sword and sandal rule book.
It must however, be noted that this is no slight on the actors, who do an admirable job given the flimsy as flat bread source material they have to work with. Channing Tatum gives a surprisingly solid performance as the aggrieved but determined All-American, protagonist pretending to be Roman (because all Roman’s had American accents, naturally); while Jamie Bell provides steely support as his vengeful but honourable British slave. Tahar Rahim, of A Prophet fame, also does a decent job of posing threat as the Prince of the evil and cannibalistic “Seal People”, although one can’t help but feel that, as potentially the most exciting actor to have emerged in recent years, he’s unforgivably wasted; hidden under a mask of paint, playing a pantomime villain who talks gibberish and dresses like an Aztec warrior who should be Scottish… somebody please put this man to better use in a proper role very, very soon. The inclusion of Donald Sutherland as Marcus Flavius Aquila’s pointless uncle however, is a an unnecessary step too far, which serves only to further highlight how desperately underwritten all the characters are.
Nonetheless, it seems to be written in the dusty sword and sandal rule book that there always has to be a wise old bloke with a wispy white beard to spout insightful nonsense to the young hero. Everyone loves a good beard I guess. Unfortunately, said marvellous facial appendage isn’t quite enough to detract from the grandma slow first act. The second is an improvement, with gripping peril providing real potential for originality, only for the good work to be completely dashed in the third act as the plot descends into ludicrously contrived and unrealistic cliché. Cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle should be pleased with his beautiful framing of the bleak British landscapes on show but Kevin Macdonald’s inexperience directing action sequences is damagingly apparent.
Bar an early scene involving the defence of a Roman fort, which is actually quite enjoyable, the rest of the action consists predominantly of hand to hand (or sword to sword if we’re being pedantic) combat which, unfortunately, just comes across as a fast, chaotic mess due to a poorly misjudged quick-cut, hand held approach. All in all, The Eagle is a film which is desperately trying to be a Gladiatorial epic but fails miserably on a number of rudimentary levels. It’s watchable but a director of Macdonald’s promise and pedigree really should know better than to make a film which hasn’t fulfilled the fundamental requirements of the development process.