Friday, February 11, 2011

The Eagle (2011); A Review


It Is Dangerous To Join A Celt...

It just may be that there simply is no getting away from it: every Roman-era film appears to be trying to channel Gladiator. Instead of going back to do some good action, nifty fight scenes, and grandiose dialogue about Empire, recent Roman epics go for some vague, mystical feel, with curiously Middle Eastern-style music and rather glum leads.

The Eagle, if it's aiming for those standards, achieves them remarkably well. If, however, it aims for anything else: be it entertainment or insightful commentary on friendship or honor, it missed by a Roman mile.

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of the commander of the Ninth Legion, who twenty years earlier disappeared, along with their eagle standard, deep within the now-Scottish Highlands. Marcus, now a commander in his own right, takes command of a fort in Britannia. The native population attacks, and while Marcus manages to rescue his men he is severely wounded. He is taken to the villa of his uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland), conveniently also in Britain, I might add, but Marcus is honorably discharged from service due to his injuries.

While at a gladiatorial event Marcus admires the courage of a Celtic slave (Billy Elliot, I mean, Jamie Bell). Marcus gets the crowd to spare the slave's life, and Uncle Aquila buys said slave for Marcus. This slave, Esca, is none to pleased to be in Marcus' service, but since he saved his life he pledges loyalty. Now, things would stay as they are but for rumors that the Ninth Legion's eagle has been spotted deep within the Highlands, beyond Hadrian's Wall. Marcus, desiring to restore his family's honor, decides to venture beyond the edge of the Roman world, taking Esca as his guide/translator/slave. Again, Esca is none too pleased with this arrangement, but he does as he's told.

While on their journey, they meet Guern (Mark Strong) who survived the massacre of the Ninth and has 'gone native'. He tells Marcus that Esca is a member of one of the tribes that took part in the massacre, and a little after both are captured by the Seal People which I confess to hearing as the Sea People but I kept calling the Painted People for obvious reasons. Now the tables are turned: Esca is now the master, and Marcus is the slave. In a native ceremony Marcus sees the Ninth Legion's Eagle, and with the surprise help of Esca retakes it. Now it becomes a race to evade the Seal People and make it back to the Roman world.

Again, a film like The Eagle should not be held up to a standard of something like a Ben-Hur. The latter is an epic, and it involved the struggle between two men who at first loved each other only to see their love turn to bitter rivalry. The Eagle appears to have that in reverse: two men, or at least one man who hate each other learn to value each other. The problem is that Kevin Macdonald (no relation, at least known, to one of the Kids In The Hall with the same name) never got us to care all that much about Esca and Marcus.

He certainly never made us believe that they cared about each other. For most of the film, we never got a sense that Marcus and Esca grew as people or in their relationship to each other. In short, we never see them as friendly towards each other, let alone friends. Their relationship isn't based on anything because Esca spends so much time scowling we can't imagine he has any other emotion save for barely masked hostility for Marcus. This makes his aiding Marcus near the end quite puzzling because it comes from left field. As for Marcus, he appears so interested in the eagle standard that he never seems interested in sharing words with his slave. Therefore, if neither of the leads appears to have any interest in what the other is thinking or be able to read each other, how then can we believe that they can make the decisions they make?

There is also a wild inconsistency in Marcus' warrior abilities in Jeremy Brock's screenplay (adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth). Early in The Eagle, Marcus stirs from his sleep and in the misty quiet of the English country senses and hears an impending attack from the natives. However, later in the film, he appears completely clueless that a smaller group of Picts are about to attack him and Esca. In fact, it's Esca, not Marcus, that hears and senses the impending attack. Maybe it was suppose to show that both of them really are two sides of the same coin, but it signaled instead that Marcus' Spidey Sense was off.

The performances by the leads don't make things any clearer. Tatum appears built physically at least, and his short, cropped hair helps to perpetually play military types. If I go back to his previous films, at least the ones I've seen of his, it appears his stock and trade is to play soldier (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Dear John, The Eagle, even perhaps The Dilemma). Perhaps Tatum doesn't mind appearing to be typecast since he has earned success in these types of roles.

However, while he is pretty to look at, he still isn't able to show any true expression. I confess that my mind wandered a bit to imagine Channing Tatum playing Hamlet, and found that my imagined efforts of him trying his hand at Shakespeare were more entertaining than the film I was watching. Throughout The Eagle he maintains the same facial expression as if he's still deciding what 'acting' truly entails.

When he's taken prisoner he looks genuinely confused as to what's happening, and while granted I've never served in the military I would imagine even I would realize when I was being taken prisoner and would be at the least slightly concerned. Since we never get a hint that Esca and Marcus are remotely friendly (they are overtaken by the Painted People after a very short argument/fight) we aren't shocked Esca turns on his master.

Speaking of Esca, it appears little Bell is going the Christian Bale route: former cute kid who gained fame for dancing turning into an all-Method, intense actor. He doesn't smile, or in fact doesn't really have much of a personality . Here he is, in his home country, looking over the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, and he doesn't seem even the least excited about been back to his native land. He really doesn't seem excited about anything. When we first see him, it may be just to draw attention to how he's physically built himself up, but for most of The Eagle, he appears to be a shadow, going through the motions of a second-rate action film, biding his time before he can find his own version of The Fighter.

The smaller roles don't fare better. Sutherland is basically a cameo whose purpose is to get Marcus and Esca together, a bit of a Roman matchmaker. Once they go off into the Outlands, he disappears from the film completely; he doesn't even bother to show up at the end. Strong is vaguely recognizable as Guern, but since we don't really get to know him all that well, we don't have any vested interest in him. There is unintended comic relief in two minor characters: Dakin Matthews' Claudius and his son Placidus (Pip Carter). We first hear Claudius before seeing him, and at first I thought Claudius sounded like a Roman version of Truman Capote. As for Placidus, besides having little to do except give Marcus the motive to begin his search, I couldn't help think he looks like a young Marco Rubio.

Perhaps we could have done with more comic relief in The Eagle. The tone of the film is deadly serious and deadly dull. It takes itself way to seriously. There isn't a sense of adventure, of action. Instead, the mood of the film is one where no one appears either awed or excited about anything. We also spend so much time seeing Marcus recover from his battle wounds we wonder how much time has actually passed, a problem we see again when our leads are wandering through unknown territory. Days? Weeks? We don't know.

The somber tone of The Eagle is carried further via Atli Ovarsson's score. When a good pounding beat would be good, say, a battle scene, we get instead these quasi-mystical choral works more suited for a Russian Orthodox service than a fight between Nobles and Savages (which to my mind is another Gladiator effect). The constant flashbacks to Marcus' memories of his father and of the fall of the Ninth Legion don't help; they tend to slow down what momentum The Eagle starts to build.

The frustrating thing about The Eagle is that it bills itself as an action adventure, tries to be a character study of two men on opposite sides of a fight who find a genuine friendship between them, and then fails on both counts. Worse off, it leaves the door ever so slightly open for a sequel. Were there to be one, the only thing they could do is give the leads some personality.

Again, we never got to know Marcus or Esca, and certainly never got a sense they even cared for/about each other, let alone grew to be best friends. We never got the sense or understanding as to what motivated one or the other to do the things they did for each other. If the story had focused more on their relationship on the journey rather than on the beauty and wildness of the Scottish Highlands, (though they were spectacularly filmed thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography), The Eagle could have been entertaining, certainly fun. The serious tone and poor starring performances, however, made it crash.

Normally, it's Channing Tatum that serves as eye candy. It's nice to see him give Billy Elliot a chance to show off another beautiful male.

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