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The Eagle (Frank's take)

01/03/2011. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy The Eagle in the USA - or Buy The Eagle in the UK

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The Eagle has landed…and the choppy adventures that transpired in this nearly two hour pulsating but stiffened period piece can be arbitrarily reduced to historical hogwash.

Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) has a suitable track record for overseeing majestic, mayhem-fueled dramas with colourful subjects in manipulative melodramas such as One Day in September and Touching the Void. However, The Eagle has some potent polish to its hedonistic storytelling but the laughable vibes to this awkwardly contemporary-charged swords-and-sandal saga cannot make The Eagle spread its wings with regale distinction.

Overwrought and surging with mechanically orchestrated by-the-dots swashbuckling swagger Macdonald’s capriciously jolting yet unrefined cut-throat drama lacks a foundational focus needed to ensure its consistent credibility. The film’s aura is occasionally electrifying with its heavy emphasis on boisterous battle scenes, graphic imagery and quests of conquering fury based on the elaborate stimulating visuals and lavish settings at hand. Still, one can not overlook the atmospheric flexing that The Eagle does with its one-dimensional muscle depicting honour and testosterone-induced tradition.

As a carousing costume drama, The Eagle maintains some momentum as a popcorn pleaser grounded in stirring scope and imagination. Sadly, there are also jarring elements that undermines Macdonald’s wavering swords-and-spears spectacle—namely the thin line between a curiously modernised conventional clanging caper circa 2nd century sensibilities (with an uneven glossy 21st-century feel to its gumption) and an over-bloated B-movie needing some instilled camp—struggles to find its designated identity as an enthralling account of civilised empires trying to preserve its staying power.

Based on the Rosemary Sutcliffe classic youth-oriented tome “The Eagle of the Ninth”, screenwriter Jeremy Brock bluntly surrenders a straightforward warrior war party without furnishing the story with anything originally impish or intriguing beyond the featured flourishes of swordplay and a clichéd nod to the code of courageous fighting men engaged in ancient struggles for blood, sweat and dare we say it…tears of a different mindset. Plus if your ideal costumed exposition lazily features Roman soldiers speaking with a concise American accent then digesting The Eagle will probably challenge your serious perspective on this flat, pedestrian-paced actioner complete with nimble Neanderthals searching for rugged redemption.

The film poses the nagging question: whatever happened to the Lost Legion of the Roman army that mysteriously disappeared around 117 A.D.? They were a stabilizing massive force but simply vanished without a trace—along with a treasured and touted golden emblem known as The Eagle to accompany the thousands of missing men at large. Enter Roman soldier Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum). Marcus’s sole purpose is to march into untested and unpredictable northern country [Briton territory specifically] and redeem the “family name” by retrieving the absent Eagle emblem and try to restore some respectability. The haunting factor is confronting the past demons regarding his unsuccessful father who led the Ninth Legion into a Caledonian slaughter that was devastatingly unkind and unrelenting in the end result—emphasising failure with a capital F.

Naturally, Marcus goes on this treacherous mission with his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot”) in tow. The disillusioned Esca is not particularly Marcus’s top admirer per se but he owes his Roman master big time…namely his life courtesy of Marcus saving his endangered hide in a gruesome gladiator game. So Esca must bite the bullet and fight alongside the Roman captors he despises so much. The pressure, of course, is for the reluctant Esca to fight his countrymen on Briton soil—an undeniable conflict of interest that is quite bewildering to the bombarded enslaved Brit as he must question his allegiance one way or the other. What should Esca do in the event that Marcus and his determined soldiers invade Hadrian’s Wall to wreak havoc on Briton land?

As a rollicking entertainment, The Eagle does provide some vividly horrific and high-wire moments on the battlefield. The cinematography is sprawling and crisp that suggests Macdonald’s heightened moments for wanting to dish out an energetic assault on the hungry senses. The shortcoming to this historical big scale tug-of-war is that we never are truly invested in the self-importance of the so-called revered Eagle emblem and what it truly represents in its symbolic urgency to either the Brits or Romans. Other than a brooding Tatum’s Marcus wanting to resolve his incompleteness about Daddy Dearest’s embarrassing defeat what does the Eagle mean in its genuine intrinsic value to the humanity of these clashing cultures?

The angst-ridden tension between these clashing cultures is suggested through might and fright but the movie misses an opportunity to investigate the venomous impasse through smaller, riveting psychological means while not aptly connecting subtlety or any submission of hardened pathos. As the lead protagonist, Tatum would probably make for a desired underwear male model in ancient Rome but his embattled Marcus is not convincing enough as a soul-searching soldier in redemptive transition.

The supporting players are more interesting, particularly Bell’s tormented slave sidekick Esca and the heralded biasness of Tahar Rahim as the Roman-hating Seal Prince. Donald Sutherland is enjoyably accepting as Marcus’s skeptical uncle whose penchant for recollecting the travesty of the Ninth Legion’s botched efforts is somewhat riotous. Yet Sutherland’s brief onscreen part is too brief and should have been more impactful.

Whether trying to champion the boundaries of savagery or salvation through pride, prejudice or blind fury, The Eagle glides as a clunky spectrum while echoing all the chaotic surrealism of a rusty can opener.

The Eagle (2011) Focus Features
1 hr. 54 mins.
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, Donald Sutherland, Tahar Rahim
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Critic’s Rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)

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