Wednesday, February 16, 2011

THE EAGLE Has Landed


- If this past summer's CENTURION was the badass, pulpy take on the story of Rome's legendary Ninth Legion, then The Eagle is the slightly less badass, CW-ized and teen-friendly version. However, while Centurion told the story of the Ninth Legion's disappearance, and the resulting saga of its remaining, on-the-run legionnaires, The Eagle picks up years after the Ninth Legion fell, telling the tale of the son of the legendary battalion's fabled commander, and his quest to redeem the perceived failure of his father's lost army. The Eagle has its moments, and it manages to pull itself together in its third act just enough to make the movie a decently entertaining period action flick. But the movie also has a number of issues that keep it from ever really finding its footing. Whereas Centurion left me pumped-up and satisfied, The Eagle produced more of a "meh" reaction when all was said and done.

The Eagle follows Marcus Aquila, a young member of the Roman army who's been transferred to Britain. In this region, the Romans are still haunted by their failed attempts at conquest and expansion deep into the highlands of the country. The Romans most famous setback came years earlier, when the fabled Ninth Legion attempted to conquer the barbarian tribes to the north, only to go missing - never to be heard from again. Marcus' father was the commander of the legion, and so Marcus has a particular agenda when he arrives in Britain - to restore the honor of his father and of the Roman people. How can Marcus do this? One way to achieve a symbolic victory is to recapture "the eagle" - a golden talisman that was a signifier of Roman strength, which had been lost when the Ninth Legion disappeared. In the years since, the Romans have mostly been on the defensive, rarely venturing past the giant wall separating their fortress from the northern tribes. But Marcus aims to go on the offensive - sneaking up into the highlands, seeking the legendary lost eagle for Rome.

Marcus is played by Channing Tatum, and going in, it was hard to know what Channing would bring to this role. A period piece like this one usually requires a certain sort of gravitas to pull off, and you want an actor who can convince you that he's of another era. Tatum does a decent job in the role, but he never really tries to act "Roman." In fact, a number of the film's main actors simply use ordinary American accents, which I definitely found to be a little jarring - especially at first. I realize that a quasi-British accent is not authentically Roman either, but for whatever reason, it just seems to work better for this sort of film. I thought that Tatum overall was good, but he never really turned it up a notch and brought his game up to that higher level either. The Eagle has plenty of moments that were okay with Tatum in the lead, but that could have been great in the hands of an actor with a bit more range.

The rest of The Eagle's cast is similarly okay. Jamie Bell is the other main lead - playing a slave-turned-comrade-in-arms of Marcus'. I wasn't familiar with Bell going in, but he was pretty good here. The main problem wasn't so much him as it was some very thin writing around his character. And the same can be said for the characters played by usually-excellent, veteran actors like Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong. Both just sort of show up, but have very little meat to chew on in their roles.

And that brings me to the first of the movie's two biggest problems - the story structure and the script in general. The pacing of the film just seems completely all over the place. It takes forever to get going, taking its sweet time in explaining who Marcus is or why we should care about him. We are quickly thrown into the midst of a huge, hard-to-follow battle in which we have no idea who is fighting or why. As the movie progresses, it seems to give any number of characters the short shrift. Sutherland, as Marcus' wise uncle, does almost nothing of import. Mark Strong's character, meanwhile, has the makings of a badass. He's a member of the Ninth Legion who is found by Marcus, a guy who once ran from battle but who now has a chance to stand up and fight. Potentially, an awesome character. But we barely get to know the guy, and I was absolutely shocked at how abruptly his character arc ended, with absolutely minimal dramatic impact. The script just seems to spend a lot of time on unimportant scenes, while rushing past key character moments and potentially impactful drama.

The lack of drama can also, in large part, be attributed to the very shaky direction and editing. Battle scenes seem to be going for a Ridley Scott / Gladiator-esque shaky-cam, quick-cutting style, but director Kevin MacDonald really fumbles in this regard. Most of the fight scenes are near-impossible to follow, and lack any sort of compelling or coherant choreography. Characters just get lost in the chaos, and that means that you're rarely emotionally-invested in the action. The editing in the fight scenes and elsewhere is also somewhat questionable. As I alluded to earlier, the movie just seems to skip right ahead past moments that you'd think would be important. All in all, too much of The Eagle feels like a TV show - close-ups, shoddy action, and minimal sense of scope. The film never feels as big or epic as it should. By the same token, the action wants to be as gritty and explosive as Gladiator or other such films, but instead, most of the battles and fight scenes are so quickly and incoherantly cut together that they aren't exciting, just boring.

With all that said, The Eagle does have a certain scrappy charm to it. Some fun bits of dialogue sneak into the movie, particularly some of the exchanges between Tatum and Bell. Their relationship - first as master-slave, and ultiamtely as equals and friends - is the heart of the movie, and the film does a nice job of building up their relationship and creating an interesting dynamic between them. Also, the movie does, as mentioned, begin to build some pretty good momentum in its final act. At that point, the storytelling finally seems to gel and the pace picks up - we become more invested in whether Marcus and co. will be able to bring the eagle back to their Roman countrymen, and there are a couple of pretty exciting fight scenes to boot. Tatum, Bell, Sutherland, and Strong are likable as heroes, and the grey-painted Seal People - their barbarian rivals - are suitably fearsome and savage villains.
One other random but odd thing about the movie. There are NO women in it. None! Okay, a couple of barbarian women briefly appear, but there is not one female in the movie with a single line of dialogue. By midway through the film, this really began to nag at me for some reason, if only because some sort of love interest might have at least given Marcus a little more personality. But more than that ... it was just really weird. How do you make a Roman period piece without a single female character?

The Eagle can be entertaining, but ultimately, it just doesn't have any truly memorable characters or moments. Given that it deals with such a compelling story and time-period, the movie fails to live up to the premise's potential to be epic and badass. There are worse movies out there, but I'd say see Centurion if you want to experience the best recent film about Rome's legendary Ninth Legion.

My Grade: C+

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