Review: ‘The Eagle’

Will Leitch
Derp. Focus Features
Derp. Focus Features

1. "The Eagle" is the type of movie I bet I would have just loved as a 12-year-old. Actually, that's not true: At 12 years old, I would have made it 10 minutes in, grown bored and gone back to "The Legend of Zelda." But this is the type of movie I like to imagine a 12-year-old me enjoying. It is a big, dumb, old-fashioned boy-buddy movie, with two kids rampaging across Scotland in order to find some trophy (the Eagle of the title) in the name of honor and valor. In plot, it's not all that different from a video game, actually. Though it's not nearly as stimulating and, all told, I'm not 12 anymore.

2. Our hero is Marcus Aquila, and all I probably need to tell you about Marcus is that he's played by Channing Tatum. Tatum is hardly one of our most emotive actors -- he grunts and is appropriately proud of himself for remembering his unwieldly lines -- but, hey, he's adept at convincingly charging into battle, and he seems to having a gay old time pretending to be a Roman warrior. Like all teenagers, he is obsessed with his both living up to and despising his father, a fellow warrior who disappeared during a battle with indigenous Brits and lost the eponymous Eagle, a symbol of all that is great about Rome, or something. After being injured in battle, he is tended to by a fun, hammy Donald Sutherland before setting out to retrieve the Eagle and restore his family's name. You can't play a role like this with any irony, so Tatum is the perfect choice: He doesn't seem to understand what's going on around him, and you wouldn't want him to.

3. Marcus brings along his British slave Esca with him, played engagingly and with considerable, entirely unnecessary intensity by Jamie Bell. (Bell plays every scene like he's daring you to call him "Jamie." It's James, buddy.) It might seem strange that this buddy movie revolves around a slave and his master, and the movie never quite figures out how to deal with the issue. Esca is a proud Brit and hates the Romans, but vows to serve Marcus because Marcus saved his life. Their relationship is never developed -- you never quite understand why they're friends, or if they even are -- and when Esca turns on him midway through the film, you wonder if the film is more interesting than it claimed to be. A boy buddy gladiator movie turning into a commentary on enslavement and xenophobia? Well played. Alas, Esca is just pretending to turn on Marcus, and they're back fighting with each other in no time. The movie's response to the slavery issue is simply to say, "Hey, that's how they did it back then!" and then move along with its business. In a film as goofy and earnest as this one is, it's difficult to argue with the approach.

4. A movie like this ordinarily has big, epic, bloody battle sequences, but this one is aimed squarely at the PG-13 target. Director Kevin Macdonald ("Touching The Void") keeps everything straightforward and safe; this is one of those movies where you see the warrior swinging the sword, but not what happens afterward. As much fun as it might have been to see Nicolas Winding Refn at the helm here, with beheadings and disembowelments and a stray Judas cradle, it would feel all wrong for "The Eagle." This is a teenage boy's dressup fantasy, and it needs to be more Calvin playing around with Hobbes than Klebold playing around with Harris. The fight scenes are efficient and spare and to the point. They're not particularly thrilling, but they're not meant to be. They're here just so Channing Tatum can look convincingly buff. They do the job.

5. Somewhere deep inside this movie, if you have the type of brain to want to look for it, there's probably some subtext about empires and colonization and manifest destinies. If you have that type of brain, look deep into the eyes of Channing Tatum and you'll be cured of that right quick. (Behind the eyes, you will see a bench press and a picture of Daughtry.) This is an agressively silly movie, a Barbie dream house fantasy for boys, and if you are in the right mood for such a creation, you'll have a perfectly acceptable time. It's a video game, after all: Dull sensation, easily recognizable and comforting images and a total lack of recollection of what it is you were just doing within seconds of it being over. It is a trip inside Channing Tatum's brain for a couple of hours. There's not much there, but, hey, there's plenty of room to get cozy.

Grade: B-