If you like your sand-and-sandal flicks to feature blind nationalism and jingoistic proclamations of honor and loyalty, then the new Roman-era bore from Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) is right up your alley. The Eagle is filled with just enough wartime propaganda and chest-thumping battle cries to set a neocon's heart a-flutter.
Am I reading too much into this old-fashioned, middlebrow actioner? After all, it stars blandly handsome Channing Tatum (think Josh Hartnett without the acting chops) as the stoically earnest Marcus Aquila, a macho yet modest centurion who only seeks to restore honor to his family's name. See, 20 years earlier, Marcus' father led Rome's Ninth Legion into Scotland and mysteriously disappeared ... along with the golden eagle that symbolized Rome. Now, assisted by his barbarian slave Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus crosses Hadrian's Wall into the highlands of Caledonia to retrieve the legion's lost emblem. Needless to say, many a Pictish savage is killed in his quest.
To put this movie in perspective, a modern update would cheer the efforts of an American Marine as he mowed down Afghans in order to retrieve a nicely embroidered U.S. flag. Those who see our nation's mission in the Middle East as sacrosanct will probably revel in The Eagle's dull-minded, imperialist sensibilities, equating the conquest of savages as an act of patriotic righteousness.
But even getting off my political high horse, this poor man's attempt to evoke Braveheart or Gladiator mostly underwhelms. After a well-staged opening battle, The Eagle quickly loses steam as Marcus recovers from his wounds and Donald Sutherland collects a paycheck for embarrassing himself in a toga. A whole lot of traveling fills the film's middle, and because Tatum's so limited an actor, Bell becomes the focus as his slave character, Esca, is torn between turning on the master he resents and assisting the Roman he respects. The young actor is almost good enough to make you care. The final showdown between the brutish Brits and the surviving members of Marcus' father's legion is both rousing and energetic, but comes after a long slog through Jeremy Brock's undramatic screenplay. Though there isn't a single female character in the film, MacDonald isn't clever enough of a director to inject some master-slave homoerotic tension.
There are moments when cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's imagery takes your breath away (he frequently works with Danny Boyle), channeling the primordial majesty that John Boorman once created effortlessly, but it's not enough to overcome a tale better told in the first episode of HBO's Rome.