In Kevin MacDonald's sword-and-sandal drama, 'The Eagle,' Channing Tatum (as centurion Marcus Aquila) trudges through the mud from the edges of the Roman Empire into the land that will one day be Great Britain. It's a grueling journey, and while the film isn't quite as difficult to finish as Marcus's quest to retrieve his father's 9th Legion golden eagle standard, it's not a cakewalk either.
There's not a sharp clarity of purpose in 'The Eagle.' For a bit, 'The Eagle' looks like a rousing B-movie, one with Tatum miscast, but game, in a role that might stretch his resume beyond that of a dancing G.I. Joe. He speaks with the same affected, mushy accent that Hollywood actors use in period pieces when they can't do British (think Brad Pitt in 'Troy'), but the man is doing his damnedest to be a convincing period hero here. He's working to the best of his own abilities in a movie that consistently lets him (and the audience) down.
The drama lays limp; the action scenes (save for an effective opening) are haphazard to the point of feeling lazy. And while all that may sound like brutal criticism, the film maintains a monotonous watchability for its entire runtime. Credit anything compelling to the source novel, 'The Eagle of the Ninth' by Rosemary Sutcliff. The story's hook -- which finds damaged-goods Marcus paired with a reluctant British slave (Jamie Bell) on a noble fool's errand -- is strong enough to sustain the movie, even through its plodding execution.
Jamie Bell seems like Channing Tatum's direct opposite here, with all of the acting chops and none of the desire. They're an odd match on screen, meeting each other somewhere in the dead center of acting mediocrity. 'The Eagle' is mostly a buddy picture, with the pair on the road, in and out of scuffles with the Britons, but their connection to each other is all on the page and not on the screen. The screenplay tells the duo to talk about loyalty and honor, so they do. When it comes time for those lofty concepts to mean something, especially in the film's surprisingly deflated finale, they're just mere words they were paid to say, bankrupt of any emotional impact.
Makes one wonder, then, how this would've turned out with different ingredients. Leave Donald Sutherland in there as Marcus's lively physician uncle. He brightens up the film every time he's on screen. We should especially keep Anthony Dod Mantle around, the cinematographer who shot 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Anti-Christ.' His lens, coupled with Michael Carlin's production design almost always keep 'The Eagle' visually arresting. While we're Monday Morning Quarterback-ing, let's punch that script up, and re-cast the leads as well. Kevin MacDonald? He can stay, but only if he promises to pick a directing strength and go with it.
'The Eagle' will likely find a future life on the video shelves of high school history teachers looking for a semi-educational way to kill a couple of days worth of classes. It's just the right kind of dull for school. It looks authentic, there's a smidgen of sword-clanging violence, and you'll feel like you've learned a little bit about the Romans and Britons. No one will blame you, however, if you happen to fall asleep at your desk; you can always read the book later.