Friday, February 11, 2011

The Eagle: Can't fly

The Eagle (2011) • View trailer for The Eagle
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for rather restrained battle sequences and disturbing images
By Derrick Bang

Great films are easy to admire; terrible films are fun to rake over the coals. Both tend to resonate for a long time, either as fond memories or water-cooler topics of scorn.

Much of Tinseltown’s output, however, is blandly ordinary: flicks that don’t make much of a ripple upon release, and also sink like a stone during home-viewing afterlife. We must remember that the classics we cherish so fondly from Hollywood’s Golden Age represent perhaps 10 percent of the studio output from that era; much of the other 90 percent, never really worth anybody’s time or attention, is forever lost to memory.
When Marcus (Channing Tatum, right) and Esca (Jamie Bell, center) are
intercepted by the vicious Seal People, their prince (Tahar Rahim) relishes the
thought of beheading a lone Roman centurion who has ventured far into
dangerous lands.

The Eagle is likely to join them.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s sword-and-sandal saga isn’t really a bad film; it’s simply not distinguished in any manner. It’s also one of Hollywood’s cursed genres – gladiator action flicks, like Westerns, don’t attract viewer interest absent the involvement of a Russell Crowe or a Clint Eastwood – and therefore doomed to box office under-performance anyway.

That said, the premise is reasonably engaging. Jeremy Brock’s script, drawn from Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, concerns a tantalizing bit of historical fancy: the notion that Rome’s Ninth Legion, stationed for several years in Eburacum – present-day York, in modern England – suddenly vanished in 120 AD. Nobody knows whether all these men marched to an unexpected fate in Scotland, starved to death at their own outpost, or simply were assimilated by neighboring tribes; the mystery made Sutcliff’s book enormously popular and led to both a radio dramatization and a six-part 1977 BBC serial.

And now we have a big-screen movie that, despite this tantalizing notion, emerges as a curiously flat and uninvolving drama. Part of the blame belongs to star Channing Tatum, a stiff actor who never inspires viewer empathy, but in fairness he’s also hampered by Macdonald’s rather lifeless guidance. These characters simply aren’t very interesting, and the various actors never look, sound or feel like denizens of the second century; they’re all modern folks play-acting – and not very convincingly – in togas and gladiator armor.

More disappointingly, Macdonald hasn’t the faintest notion how to stage a battle scene; he and editor Justine Wright cut their melees with such fury that it’s difficult to follow who’s hacking away at whom. Then, too, small Roman squads twice face an overwhelming onslaught of enemies in far greater numbers, during the course of this story, and quite improbably emerge victorious in both cases. That outcome is difficult to swallow the first time, and utterly absurd the second time.

That’s just sloppy scripting, since a detail of this nature would be very, very easy to repair, to help with credibility. It’s not as if Macdonald and Brock were attempting a documentary, and adhering to established historical fact. After all, nobody was on site with a cam-corder.

Tatum stars as Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion sent to command the distant outpost at Eburacum, roughly 20 years after the Ninth Legion’s disappearance prompted the construction of a mighty wall that blocks access to the Scottish lands to the north. (Shades of China’s Great Wall!) Marcus has a lot to prove: He’s the son of the man who led the vanished Ninth and lost the prized Roman standard in the process, a gold eagle perched atop a staff. The disappearance of such a significant Roman emblem is viewed as an ill omen, and has sullied Marcus’ family name.

Ah, but Marcus quickly establishes his battle prowess, although at a cost; badly wounded, he’s shipped off to recuperate at the home of his uncle (Donald Sutherland, the only actor in this film who shows any signs of actual life). Despite the respect Marcus has just won, he chafes at the “honorable discharge” that has left him without a career.

In short order, he accumulates a new slave – a captured Briton named Esca (Jamie Bell) – and a new purpose. Determined to prove that his father died gloriously, defending the Eagle to the last, Marcus embarks on a dangerous journey beyond the great wall. His only companion: Esca, whom various Roman senators warn will slit our Roman hero’s throat at the earliest opportunity.

Fie on that; Marcus trusts Esca, having saved his life during gladiatorial games. And since this is one of those stories where a man’s word is his bond, never to be broken, we’re not the slightest bit worried about Esca’s allegiance to Marcus.

As expected, the journey is hard and fraught with peril, mostly from rogue outlanders and bloodthirsty tribes. Of the latter, the gray-painted Seal People are the worst, and definitely to be avoided. Esca takes point as they encounter various villagers; these are his homelands. Marcus holds back during each conversation, wondering what is being said in these foreign tongues. And so the search moves forward, if only fitfully.

Those seeking historical accuracy or any deeper meaning to this tale must settle for meager fare, although it is interesting to contemplate the notion that the Romans felt they had “conquered” any of this land, or its various nomadic tribes and villages. Camping out in a well-guarded fort in one location hardly counts as “controlling” the entire surrounding countryside, and the Romans, dependent on such distant supply lines, seem like they’re only fooling themselves. But Brock’s script never delves that deeply into such matters; it’s no more than a simple quest saga with two men against many.

Tatum’s bland Marcus becomes even less of a presence once Esca shows up; Bell is a much better actor, and his expressive face conveys the wealth of conflicting emotions that we’d expect from a man under such circumstances. Tatum, in great contrast, merely looks wooden and stone-faced.

Tahar Rahim is suitably malevolent as the prince of the Seal People, and Mark Strong brings a bit of life to his performance as Guern, a Roman warrior who turns up under unexpected circumstances. The story has no female characters whatsoever, aside from brief glimpses of ragged villagers.

The setting feels reasonably authentic, with the rugged Hungarian countryside outside Budapest standing in for the unspoiled lands of second century Britain. The many grimy extras look convincing in costume designer Michael O’Connor’s various outfits, although one motley set of rag garments looks very much like the next.

Aside from their poor staging, the various battle scenes are further compromised by the filmmakers’ obvious desire to win a family-friendly PG-13 rating. I’m no advocate of gore for the sheer sake of it, but if one goes through the motions of slitting throats and hacking off heads, it seems an obvious cheat to keep cutting away or resorting to clumsily concealing camera angles. Macdonald would have been better off accepting an R rating, and allowing his skirmishes to look more authentic.

Ultimately, I can’t help feeling that Macdonald has no sense of this genre. He’s obviously more comfortable with the documentary-style character drama of his much better films: The Last King of Scotland and State of Play. The former brought star Forest Whitaker a well-deserved Academy Award, which suggests that Macdonald can, in fact, shape a compelling performance from a good actor. I guess he didn’t have much to work with here.

The Eagle simply doesn’t soar. Although a modestly engaging time-filler for those seeking uninvolving big-screen entertainment, it’ll be forgotten long before this decade is out.

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