A buddy film as Roman epic
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, February 11, 2011
If only there were some way to turn off the plausibility detector in your brain. Moviegoers capable of suspending disbelief for a couple of hours are the most likely to appreciate the Roman Empire-era action flick “The Eagle,” which becomes absurd precisely when Channing Tatum marches onto the scene as a Roman army commander.
That’s not to say that Tatum, a beefcake in a metal breastplate, looks wholly un-Roman. But once he starts speaking, the jig is up. Tatum intermittently affects a hybrid American-British accent that mostly manifests itself in the dropping of the letter r at the end of any given word. It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t constantly talk about honor. To make matters worse, the rest of the actors speak in their normal everyday cadence, whether British or American, which makes Tatum’s peculiar syllabic emphasis all the more chuckle-inducing.
Bad accents aside, the premise is admittedly intriguing. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 historical novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” the story begins with the disappearance of the 5,000 men of the Ninth Legion, who marched into Caledonia with their insignia — a golden eagle — never to be seen again. The humiliation from the loss leads to the creation of Hadrian’s Wall (at least in the world of this movie), sealing off Rome from the far North.
Marcus is the son of the Ninth Legion’s commander, and his life’s goal is to restore his family’s honor (“hon-ah”) through soldierly accomplishments. But after a career-ending injury, the result of an ill-advised decision to charge a chariot-drawn druid, Marcus is relegated to convalescing on his uncle’s estate.
Everything changes when Marcus finds himself in charge of British slave Esca, played by Jamie Bell. I wouldn’t dare ruin the corny scene of the pair’s introduction, but let’s just say it involves Marcus rising unsteadily to his feet in a gladiatorial arena and yelling, “Life!”
While Esca promises to be a devoted worker, he also mentions that he hates all Romans, his new master included. So naturally when Marcus hears the eagle has been spotted in Caledonia, north of Roman territory, he decides that Esca would be the perfect travel companion on his mission to retrieve the emblem.
Off they go, beyond Hadrian’s Wall and past the Great Woods and over the Snowy Mountains. Cue the action galore. And the heart-warming realization that Romans and Britons can be friends.
While Kevin Macdonald (who directed “The Last King of Scotland” and won an Oscar for the documentary “One Day in September”) throws in some tiny nuggets of historical context, much of what unfolds is nothing more than unbelievable action sequences interspersed with bad dialogue. An early battle involves the Roman army’s fascinating testudo formation, in which a phalanx of men moves forward as a unit, surrounding itself with shields to create something like a tortoise shell. Yet what the heavily outnumbered group accomplishes is beyond reason. Meanwhile, the enemy clan that Marcus and Esca confront in the wilderness appears to be based on the alluring Picts, an actual tribe of painted and tattooed warriors. But the natives’ “Thriller”-like dance around a bonfire feels contrived, and their ability to outrun horses seems dubious.
What starts out as a promising mix of mystery and adventure set during a captivating period becomes a squandered opportunity. At least for the moviegoing public able to spot plot holes, “The Eagle” is nothing more than an action-packed bagatelle masquerading as history.