The mystery of the disappearance of Rome's IX Legion Hispana inspires yet another moderately rousing action picture in "The Eagle," a film based on Rosemary Sutcliff's popular 1950s novel about "The Eagle of the Ninth." Eagle-eyed period-piece fans will recall that last fall another movie, "Centurion," drew inspiration from the same piece of history.
That film, essentially a prolonged chase from B-movie vet Neill Marshall ("The Descent"), had a breathless momentum that "The Eagle" lacks. But "Eagle" director Kevin Macdonald ("State of Play," "The Last King of Scotland") manages to deliver a striking, nicely detailed, visceral thriller built on a corny, old-fashioned script.
Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young soldier with a new command on a fort on Roman Britannia's frontier. He's the sort of chiseled, charmed warrior who doesn't need his helmet half the time, who senses the Big Attack when the veterans of the outpost think "the boy" is just skittish.
Marcus has reason to be on edge. He's fighting for the honor he believes his father lost 20 years before. That's when the Ninth Legion marched north and into oblivion. They lost their unit standard, the eagle, in the process. Marcus longs to redeem the family name and retrieve the eagle from the "tainted legion."
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First he must recover from battle wounds he sustains saving his men. He must overcome the skepticism of his patrician uncle (Donald Sutherland, less interesting here than in "The Mechanic"). And he must win the loyalty of the slave (Jamie Bell, buff and feral) who must guide him, in disguise, to the Land of the Painted Seal People.
Tatum's rock-solid build has always suggested "soldier," even when he was playing a dancer in "Step Up." But he's not a commanding presence, especially playing a commander. He throws what weight he can into scenes in which Marcus prays that he doesn't "dishonor my legion," and behind such lines as "The Eagle is not a piece of metal. It is ROME."
Tatum handles the brawls beautifully and clicks with most of his co-stars, especially Bell. Their male bonding gives this World Without Women a hint of Hemingway's homo-eroticism, a touch that may earn titters from less-sophisticated filmgoers.
For my money, "Centurion," using similar Scottish and Eastern European locations and with the formidable Michael Fassbender as its star Roman, is a more rousing and entertaining movie. But Macdonald gets more out of his Scottish locations (he is a Scot, after all), and had the budget to get a lot of detail right.
Then it goes all chatty. And the odd decision to have everybody try to match Tatum's hidden Alabama accent jars the ears.
Outside of "Gladiator" (clearly a big influence on this film), these movies don't seem to go over on this continent the way they do in Europe. That's the real mystery here. Combat that's up close and personal, tactics torn from the pages of history and messages of honor, freedom, survival and comradeship — it shouldn't matter that the warriors wear skirts.