Thursday, February 10, 2011

'Eagle' doesn't soar, but eventually flies

Mid-February isn't exactly an exciting time for new releases; The Eagle may be as good as we're likely to get.

If nothing else, The Eagle exposes us to a little Roman history. Based on the popular British novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle builds its story around a lost Roman legion. In 120 AD, a 5,000-man legion - the Ninth -- vanished in Caledonia, an area now known as the Scottish highlands. The Legion's symbol - a golden eagle - was lost along with a fair amount of Roman honor.

Believing the empire disgraced, the emperor Hadrian built a wall (immodestly known as Hadrian's Wall) to separate areas controlled by Rome from the uncivilized wilds that he and his generals had failed to subdue.

I'm not sure that historians would agree with my description, but this is history as culled from The Eagle, which stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, the former as a Roman commander, the latter as a Scottish slave. Together our bickering heroes set out to recover the lost eagle and return it to Rome, fighting off foes and building a sword-and-sandals bromance.

Tatum's Marcus Aquila, who speaks a very contemporary sounding English, wants to restore his family's honor. It seems his father commanded the lost legion, and took most of the blame for the Caledonia debacle.

I know. By now, you're thinking I should get on with it already. Is The Eagle any good or not?

To this question, I must apply the assessment that seems most fitting for these sluggish months between the dawn of the New Year and arrival of the Oscar ceremonies: The Eagle strikes me as another movie that may be not be great, but proves acceptable for the moment.

The movie owes much of its interest to a well-worn tactic: Marcus and his slave - Bell's Esca - embark on an adventure, which takes them beyond Hadrian's Wall into exotic turf, a kind of no-man 's-land that brims with peril. Wild-looking Caledonian tribesmen - the warriors sport Mohawks and painted faces and are called the Seal People - inhabit the movie's eerie landscapes.

This part of the story is preceded by a lengthy prologue in which Marcus lands in Britain, where he initially meets with resentment from hardened veterans who view his arrival as a bad omen.

Marcus wins the men over in an early battle in which he's badly wounded. This leads to a period of recuperation with his uncle (a bearded Donald Sutherland). While staying with his uncle, he meets Esca, a slave who comes owes Marcus allegiance for saving his life.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) includes a fair measure of action, much of it shot in disorienting close-ups, over-edited sequences that simulate the frenzied feeling of battle. This is the current vogue, and provides me with an opportunity to throw another log on the fires of my dissatisfaction: Damn few filmmakers know how to direct a coherent fight sequence anymore.

Tatum maintains a stern attitude throughout; he looks the part of a young Roman officer, even if he sometimes comes off as a junior grade Russell Crowe. Bell handles his slave duties well, particularly after a mid-picture plot twist. Esca and Marcus are captured; to save his master, Esca - a Caledonian by birth -- tells the Seal People that he has taken the Roman commander as his slave.

Macdonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock, who worked together on The Last King of Scotland, build toward a finale that involves a desperate battle, lots of corny dialog and the sort of faux inspiration that we've seen a thousand times before, the usual bromides about fighting for brotherhood, honor and country.

You get the idea: The Eagle probably won't find a home among the great historical epics of cinema, but for February 2011, it might be as good as it gets.

No comments: