While watching the promotional campaign for The Eagle, I couldn't help but think back on Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He was also a pretty boy that the women fawned over, although he had a better pedigree than the star of The Eagle, Channing Tatum, what with the Oscar for Dances With Wolves and all. Even so, he proved that you couldn't just throw an actor in a medieval role and assume that no one would notice that the character's accent changed every five minutes, no matter how big the name is at the top of the poster. Needless to say I walked in expecting the worse from an actor still best known from the Step Up franchise.
Color me shocked that Tatum manages to pull off a solid performance as Marcus Aquila, a young Roman soldier given his own military command when the film opens. He has asked to be placed in charge of a fort in northernmost Britain, where his father disappeared twenty years earlier leading the Ninth Legion into Scotland. The men, nor their golden emblem, The Eagle of the Ninth, ever returned. Soon after taking command of the fort, Marcus manages to thwart an attack by surrounding clans, but is seriously wounded. Unable to return to duty, he soon hears word of the Eagle being seen outside Rome's reach, so he and his Celt slave Esca (Jamie Bell) begin their journey to find it.
The filmmakers play quite the smoke and mirrors trick by surrounding Tatum with bad actors. While it is ridiculous to completely buy Tatum as a Roman soldier, the other actors that portray his subordinates sound as if they were found performing community theater in Wisconsin before getting this job. Dakin Matthews, a great character actor last seen playing a horse trader in True Grit, is woefully miscast here as a Roman Senator. I can only assume he was offered the role after the casting agent found out Buck Owens died years ago.
Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play) impresses with his handling of several of the best battle scenes I have seen in the cinema in years. He also shows he is quite adept at quiet scenes as well, like a campfire scene between the two travelers where Esca lets Marcus know his true feelings for the Romans and Marcus' father in particular. Macdonald is a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and I look forward to what he shows us in the future.
At the end of the film, I still couldn't wrap my mind completely around it. During any ten minute stretch it would be great, and then there would be a scene that would make my eyes roll. What I can honestly say is that if you watched the commercials for this and thought that it looked like the movie for you, I would strongly recommend it. If you are on the fence, keep your expectations low and you'll be alright.