In 120 A.D., as Rome sought to expand it’s empire to the North and the West, they encountered sizable resistance from the Picts in Britain. Seeking to take control, Rome’s Ninth Legion with 5,000 soldiers fell before the Picts, in disgrace to their country.
In the 20 years that have passed at the start of The Eagle, it’s been established that Rome had constructed a wall cutting off this region of Britain. Now, the son of the general of the Ninth Legion, Marcus Flavius Aquila, seeks to regain his family’s honor by taking command of a small garrison near the wall. In a battle against a Pict tribe, Marcus’ troops hold back the tribe, though Marcus suffers from an injury that then has him honorably discharged from his command.
As Marcus recuperates, he manages to save the life of a Briton slave, Eska, during a gladiatorial battle. And though Eska despises everything that Marcus stands for, he owes him his life and swears allegiance to him. Marcus hears that the golden eagle standard that belonged to the Ninth has been seen in the possession of one of the Pict tribes, the Seals. Recovered from his injuries, Marcus seeks to take back the eagle, with Eska by his side.
That’s the basic premise of The Eagle, the new movie from director Kevin Macdonald who has previously helmed the films The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, neither of which I’ve seen. This is also the second recent movie to use the fall of the Ninth Legion as it’s centerpiece, the other being Neil Marshall’s last film, Centurion, but more about that later.
Overall, I thought that The Eagle wasn’t bad, but it doesn’t really do a whole lot to distinguish itself either. It’s pace is very leisured and in some places is just a little laborious. The film has a serviceable look to it which gets a little more impressive as we get further into Marcus’ and Eska’s journey. The fight scenes aren’t bad, though they are tightly cut and shot close up. They serve their purpose and nothing more. The best part of the film is the relationship between Marcus and Eska, but even that is on the very dry side.
Channing Tatum plays Marcus and Jamie Bell plays Eska. Both actors look terrific in their parts and they do their best with what they have here, with Bell’s intensity as the standout between the two. Tatum does his best to garner sympathy for his character, but it doesn’t give you the rousing drive that you want out of something like this. Still, for Tatum, this is pretty decent work. Donald Sutherland plays Marcus’ uncle, who we see during Marcus’ recuperation period. His performance, as is those of the other actors playing Romans, is very casual, which doesn’t quite give off the air of imperialism that you sort’ve want out of something like this. From what I understand though, that was a decision on Kevin Macdonald’s part to sort of buck the trend of how we normally see Romans portrayed on film. Mark Strong also briefly shows up in the movie as Guern, a former Ninth Legionnaire, who saw the futility of the Ninth’s battle and left to survive. Strong’s almost unrecognizable when you see him, though it almost doesn’t matter as there’s not a whole lot done with him here.
The Eagle isn’t a bad movie, it’s just average. The pieces are there to make this a rousing piece of entertainment, but it seems to me that director Macdonald is deliberately underplaying everything. Why? I don’t know, maybe to keep it more grounded in reality than anything else. That may be the case, and at the same time clips The Eagle’s wings.
Now, I also mentioned Neil Marshall’s Centurion above and I just watched that before going to see The Eagle (it’s available in high definition on Netflix Instant Play). Now, I’m already a fan of Marshall’s, his previous films Dog Soldiers and Doomsday are just a hell of a lot of fun, and The Descent was one of my top ten favorites for 2005. Centurion, which is very much influenced by Walter Hill’s movie, The Warriors, delivers on just about every count. It’s beautifully shot, the action scenes are spectacular, and the performances are absolutely terrific with standout work from lead Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko. This wasn’t widely released theatrically which is a shame because it deserved to be seen on a big screen. So basically, I offer that up as an alternative if you’re wanting to see a movie based around the fall of the Ninth Legion. The Eagle is workmanlike and average, but Centurion soars.