History is littered with movies about historical badasses. Braveheart. Gladiator. 300. Each has upped the kick-ass quotient to include more blood, more guts, and more all-around face-smashin’ action. It’s not enough to give characters period haircuts, antiquated names that are hard to spell, and armor that may or may not protect against an army of marauding warriors. Today’s historical action stars need a sense of purpose too.
Like a two-hour version of Spartacus: Blood and Sand (but with less blood and nudity) crossed with Clash of the Titans (without the Kraken), The Eagle soars onto the screen with a mighty big purpose. Roman soldier Marcus Aquila (played with stoic determination by Channing Tatum) goes on a quest to bring back a treasured golden eagle emblem lost, along with a squad of men, 20 years ago.
It’s all about honor, loyalty, friendship, and a bunch of other coming-of-age tropes found in the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth. But the shortened-title movie adaptation has more in common with 300 and other crimson-colored epics set in the time of tunics and leather lappets.
The Eagle takes place in 140 AD, when Marcus first takes command of a ramshackle army post. They’re understaffed, the officers bitch about everything, and the latrines are a stinking mess. But they prove themselves capable during their first skirmish, a late-night attack by a tribe of hairy warriors who look like members of a freak-folk band.
Marcus ends up with a nasty leg wound in the ensuing battle and is given an honorable discharge. After some reflection – and chats with a lost-looking Donald Sutherland, who plays his uncle – he decides to retrieve the lost eagle and maybe the vanished men. With slave Esca (Jamie Bell) in tow, Marcus sets off on his quest, babbling about “family honor” as he heads out into certain danger.
In addition to all the stuff about the golden eagle, Marcus also has daddy issues (his father led the troop that disappeared with the eagle two decades ago). So there’s plenty of soul-searching in Jeremy Brock’s laborious script. Director Kevin Macdonald – who’s done better work in One Day in September, the 1999 documentary about the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics, and The Last King of Scotland, the 2006 Idi Amin biopic – lays on everything superthick: the battle scenes, Marcus’ quest, the dialogue, and especially the sense of honor at the center of the story.
The Eagle wants to go deeper than its predecessors but ends up a shallow reflection of them. The battle scenes – the make-or-break point of many of these movies — are nowhere near as exciting as 300’s, even though similar quick jump-cuts are used. Of course Marcus learns a thing or two about life along the way. He also scores a solid bromance with Esca. But all you’re left with is the long, tedious journey.