Review: 'The Eagle' Doesn't Ever Live Up to Its Legendary Potential
by Jeremy Kirk
February 14, 2011
There's a lot of give and take when it comes to words over images. Sometimes words can be tedious, banal exposition whose only presence is for the sake of conveying information to its audience. On the other hand, words can have great power, explaining something that may not need to be seen, building up an idea into legendary status until what is in the viewer's mind is far greater than anything a director can actually put on screen. The Eagle, the new film from The Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald, has a hard time balancing these two sides of the expository coin. The idea of the Eagle is there, a golden eagle carried by the Ninth legion of Rome who were lost in the northern area of Britain. Characters talk about it as if it is a great symbol of their country.
This is something Channing Tatum's Marcus Flavius Aquila does to great lengths. It was under his father's command that the Ninth was lost, and it is his father's name to which he goes to great lengths to restore honor. So when word comes that the Eagle has been spotted, Marcus sets out to Caledonia, the area that is Scotland today, to find the Eagle and bring it back to its rightful position. He doesn't go alone. With him he takes Esca, played by Jamie Bell, a Scottish slave whose life Marcus spared during a gladiatorial game. Commence the road trip movie now.
That isn't to say The Eagle is just a road trip movie nor is it just a chase movie a la last year's Centurion. The events explained above don't even begin to play out until the film is 30 minutes into its run time. What comes before is establishing of Marcus' character, a few battles, and a whole lot of talking. That's right. That's exactly what you want in your Roman-soldier-on-a-mission movie. Lots and lots of talking.
It would even be so bad if the dialogue and exposition is anything of much interest, but MacDonald allows his actors to converse for far too long, allows the scenes to play out from their very beginning to their very end. By the time Marcus and Esca actually broach into Caledonia, you just want some excitement to transpire, something that never really comes to fruition.
There are certainly battles strewn throughout The Eagle. Despite MacDonald's keen eye for setting and the grit he and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle bring to each image, the action in The Eagle never reaches the level of charge you might want or expect. One of the great things about the Roman army is their structural formation, the way an entire battalion can move in unison as if one, large body is moving across a battle field. In one of the earliest scenes of The Eagle, a small group is working its way across such a field. They hold their shields in front and cover their top, one armored group pushing its way towards a certain point, attackers on all sides trying to breach the dome any way it can. From afar, I'm sure it's something to behold, but MacDonald shoots it up close preferring to show us actor's faces in medium shot rather than the entire body as a whole. It could have been a thing of structural art, but all we see are mud-covered faces that grimace as they swing their weapons of choice.
Not grimace when it comes to Tatum, either. He acts through his jaws, clinching them as if trying to keep time to music with them, and when he does open his mouth, you know, in all those long-winded moments of narrative exposition, he feels like he's reading lines.
Not such the case with Bell, who is playing a much more layered character than Marcus. You don't quite know how to take Esca. He hates Marcus and everything he stands for because of the way Rome has treated his people. You can understand that. It's hard to root for a collective of filmic "good guys" who are invading a country. See Centurion for another example of being torn between who the real and bad characters are when it comes to morality. But Esca, aided by Bell's organic portrayal, is of both worlds, an oppressed character who has still sworn an oath to the film's protagonist. He really should be the main character of The Eagle even though it is not his mission we are following.
The Eagle, what starts as a road trip up through Northern Britain, quickly turns into a chase movie back south. In that aspect, it bears even more a resemblance to Centurion and even Apocalypto. Of course, both of those films had something The Eagle and its PG-13 rating lack, a certain edge to the violence that has noticeably been cut around. We don't see the damage that is being done. Instead, we cut to closeups of the character's faces that are doing the damage or we cut to black altogether. In any regard, it dulls the film's blade to the point of being wholly nonexistent. The action suffers for it, and the film, what should have been exhilarating, becomes blunted by it.
And blunted becomes the operative word for The Eagle. Whether it is by the ample amount of expository dialogue (flashbacks to the Ninth and the Eagle actually do a disservice to them both, as only hearing about them could have built their legend up even more) or the dodgy way MacDonald handles the action, the film never seems to live up to its potential. Of course, there are other films that take the potential The Eagle has and runs with it. See the rest of this review for such examples. What we have here, though, is found lacking. The Eagle is a flattened story of brotherhood where very little, not even the central connection that could have made it a bromance for the ages, is executed with any sense of realism. Much like Tatum or Bell's inability to grow decent facial hair (I wonder what kind of laser surgery they had in the Roman empire), The Eagle never quite seems to come up from underneath its wordy surface.
Jeremy's Rating: 5 out of 10