Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DVD Review: The Eagle

The Eagle ** ½
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Written by: Jeremy Brock based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Starring: Channing Tatum (Marcus Aquila), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), James Hayes (Stephanos), Mark Strong (Guern), Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince), Thomas Henry (Seal Boy), Ned Dennehy (Seal Chief / The Horned One).

The Eagle is a movie that should be much better than it actually is. Watching the film, I was never really bored by it, but it never truly involved me either. It’s like the filmmakers and the actors are simply going through the motions – trying to make a Roman epic like they’ve seen in the past, but never quite finding their way inside of the action. It certainly doesn’t help that the last act of the movie, especially the final scene, rings utterly false.

Years ago on a mission in North England, a Roman General and his army were completely lost. No trace has been found of them, or their prized silver eagle, since. This inspired the Emperor to set up a wall, forever shutting out Northern England. For all intents and purposes, the Roman world ends at that wall. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of that General, who wants nothing more than to redeem his family name. Upon achieving a high military rank, he is asked where he wants to be stationed, and immediately says Britain. No one else wants to go there, so his request is granted, and he is given the lead of a group of men at a remote outpost. He isn’t there long before he is attacked, and although his men doubt him, his brilliant stategy and fighting ability, saves all of their lives. Unfortunately, he is injured, and as such is given an honorable discharge and high praise. He could live out his life in luxary in England, alongside his uncle (Donald Sutherland), but then he will never achieve the redemption he wants.

At a gladiator battle, he witnesses a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) battle against a “brave” gladiator with all his heart, despite the fact that he has no chance of winning. The gladiator eventually prevails, and when he asks the audience if he should kill Esca or not, everyone seems to want his blood. Except Marcus, who eventually turns the crowd to his favor, and Esca is spared. Marcus’ uncle buys Esca for him, and soon the two learn to respect each other. When Marcus decides the only way to win his family honor back is to go and find the prized eagle, he is told he is insane. But he eventually gets permission – thinking that with just himself and Esca, they can remain under cover. But can Esca, who hates the Roman, really be trusted when the two of them are alone?

The films opening scenes are a little perfunctory and predictable, and yet during those scenes, I did feel like the movie was building towards something. The film is directed by Kevin McDonald, who has made some very good films (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), and here, the film is visually striking, and the opening scenes play out nicely. I certainly felt like this movie was leading somewhere good. But once Marcus and Esca get beyond the wall, the film becomes more confused. The problem, I think, is that Esca’s character never really comes into focus. The movie spends so much time going back and forth on a is he good or bad vein that Jamie Bell (a very talented actor) can never quite settle into the character, because he is mainly used as just a pawn for the plot. By the time we finally know the reality of his character, the movie is in a rush to end the movie quickly.

Still, it must be said that the film is never boring. McDonald knows how to stage action, and that works to great effect in this film. Channing Tatum has never been the best of actors, but here he does what is asked of him – to be the stoic and solid leading man. Jamie Bell tries his best, but is undone by his roll. And then there is the ending, which to me is far too simplistic to be effective. What is the real message of this movie exactly? Is it pro-Roman, or pro-Britain? Why does Esca do everything that he does, right up until that final frame? The movie isn’t interested in exploring some of the complexities that it should, and as a result, The Eagle never really fulfills its promise.

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