The latest modern film to play swords-and-sandals dress-up is “The Eagle,” starring Channing “Pretty Boy” Tatum, a name I bestowed upon him having played “Pretty Boy” Floyd in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” back in 2008, albeit a part of no significance. I suppose when they coined the term “hunk,” no one expected it to apply so literally to the thick and broad-shouldered 30-year-old.
Tatum plays Marcus Flavius-Flave Aquila (okay, just Flavius), Roman centurion and son of a disgraced commander who disappeared along with the entire Ninth Legion and Rome’s beloved eagle standard in the north of Britain in 120 AD. Fast forward 20 years and son has chosen to be posted in Britain in hopes of gaining back his, his father and Rome’s honor by discovering the fate of the legion and recovering the eagle. For Tatum, this trip into dangerous territory beyond Hadrian’s Wall, as it turns out, is also a test of leading man meddle.
Heading up the real American heroes of “G.I. Joe” doesn’t exactly count for star capability, and while “The Eagle” barely holds a candle to the Roman epic of all Roman epics that is “Gladiator,” it certainly can be seen as a more serious step and one in which the target audience has no interest in ogling him — just watching him kill rebellious “Seal Men,” (precursors to Scots).
Tatum’s grades are definitely passing, but he earns more sympathy than attention. He’s not quite a commanding presence, but Jeremy Brock’s script doesn’t exactly show us anything about him other than he feels disgraced and he’s a good soldier. Flashbacks and dreams about his father riding off never to be seen again are hardly adequate ways to build a hero who can rally our spirits. He can throw down with the best of them, but he’s better stoic.
For the most part, “The Eagle” follows suit. Kevin Macdonald, a versatile and underrated director who has an Academy Award for Best Documentary and also directed Forest Whitaker to his “Last King of Scotland” Oscar, keeps the action moving and more old school — old school being the days before CGI. The fight in the beginning all the way to the journey beyond the wall and the perils he faces excite and hold attention. For an epic film that places honor and friendship at the center, the stakes just never feel high enough. You’ll make an investment in hoping for a peaceful ending, but nothing stirs beyond that.
The film tries to create several dynamics such as Marcus’ daddy issues and the relationship between Marcus and Esca (Jamie Bell), his servant whose life he saved, who over the wall could betray him at any moment, but little doubt seeps in. After all, while Esca’s a tough and resilient guy, he was once Billy Elliot — he’s probably not screwing anyone over. Actually, Bell’s performance hurts Tatum’s when all is said and done; he’s much more unpredictable.
Roman history nuts will find little to enjoy from that perspective with “The Eagle” as political undertones are practically non-existent and you have Americans playing Romans and Brits playing savage Brits. Brock’s script sticks to the action and compelling events, using a historical period to create a tone, much in the way “300″ did. Appropriately adjusting expectations for “The Eagle” to this level will help it retain the honor it deserves for capturing 120 minutes worth of interest with eventful action sequences.