Somewhere, in a quaint suburban home, there’s a teenage girl—let’s call her Jane—on the verge of an angst-fueled rebellion. Her parents are the restrictive types, monitoring everything she does, from whom she socializes with to the what’s allowed into her iPod. She’s also not permitted to watch R-rated television, meaning that she’s yet to catch any episodes of the show her friends keep raving about, Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena (and, for that matter, Spartacus: Blood and Sand), on Starz. Basically a visual orgy of over-done gore and naked hot-bodies pouncing upon one another (which makes for amazing, guiltless TV), Spartacus is a no-go in her household.
Here comes Channing Tatum to the rescue. The Eagle, which treads on similar Roman Empire territory as the much more provocative Spartacus, delivers the brutality of 2nd Century times in a virtually blood-free, PG-13 package, minus any sex. Directed by Scottish filmmaker Kevin MacDonald (The Last King Of Scotland, State Of Play), The Eagle is a strategically manufactured product. On one hand, this fairly entertaining adventure pic offers enough action and swordplay to not leave male viewers counting sheep; on the flip, though, it’s also fine-tuned for younger audiences, particularly girlies who feel like swooning over shirtless dudes and hate the sight of blood. Taken as slick entertainment, MacDonald’s Gladiator-light film is serviceable. There’s just little, if anything, to love about it.
Tatum stars as Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion in 140 AD whose family name is mud, due to the disappearance of both his father, a commander of Rome’s Ninth Legion, and an all-important golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth, in Caledonia (now Scotland) 20 years earlier. While on injured reserve, following an especially hardcore battle, Marcus saves a Briton slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), from death via gladiator; Esca hates all things Roman, yet remains obedient, since Marcus kept him alive. After Marcus gets word that the Eagle of the Ninth has been spotted, he and Esca head out to retrieve it and, if all goes well, restore his fam’s once-good name.
The Eagle eventually shifts into buddy-road-movie gear—think a younger, unfunny version of last year’s Due Date, set against a historical backdrop. Though, it’d be more fitting to dub this wrongfully cast flick a “bromantic adventure.” In the hands of a pretty-boy lead (Tatum) and an even younger looking sidekick (Bell), The Eagle feels like a toga party minus the beer, chips, and the hopeful presence intoxicated and half-naked women. An older actor with more gravitas and less look-at-me-brood artificiality could’ve worked miracles here. Watching Tatum attempt to exude the air of a war-tested leader is bothersome at best; he’s a performer of limited range. His angry outbursts, of which this movie has plenty, come across as forced and unbelievable, and supposed-to-be weighty monologues simply flap in the wind. Tatum’s insistence on flip-flopping between a barely-there accent and his natural voice doesn’t help, either.
It’s telling that, in every one of their scenes together, Bell, a young actor who’s continually impressed since his auspicious debut in 2000’s Billy Elliot, is genuinely grander in size despite being damn near a foot shorter than Tatum. Bell gives the surly role of Esca his all, but his efforts are rendered futile by the film’s overall mediocrity. With the out-of-place Tatum at the center, The Eagle never feels “real”; it’s merely a bunch of actors playing make-believe, dressed up in well-designed costumes, mugging around some awe-inspiring scenery rather than one of their own basements.
With The Last King Of Scotland, and even the lesser but still commendable State Of Play, MacDonald demonstrated an ability to present dialogue-heavy drama with clear aplomb, a trait that’s not as apparent in The Eagle. Nor are the capabilities necessary to depict large-scale battle sequences. MacDonald keeps the quick-cutting camera too close to the action, leaving the overwrought hand-to-sword fights totally incoherent. And about that PG-13 rating: It’s nearly impossible to accept Roman-era brawls, and the piles of corpses left in their wakes, that show little to no blood. As gore-hound-like as that might sound, it’s perfectly logical. Would an adult film director shoot a porno without any nudity? Certain genres require specific elements, and, frankly, shouldn’t cater to Jane and her baby-eyed friends.