The Eagle, Channing Tatum

Focus Features

Review in a Hurry: Channing Tatum is not as horribly miscast as you might expect in the role of a Roman soldier who ventures north of Hadrian's Wall into anarchic Scotland. Based on a book, The Eagle of the Ninth, that also spawned the 1977 UK miniseries, this movie has problems unrelated to the acting—its pacing and storytelling simply don't work onscreen.

The Bigger Picture: Having made a movie set in Uganda entitled The Last King of Scotland, director Kevin Macdonald returns to the actual Scotland, in an era of monarchies and empires, for this new adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's novel.

Much of the director's filmography has been documentaries, and the period detail here at least feels authentic. Perhaps, given this background, he felt an obligation to be true to the book above all else, but not everything in novels works the same way when presented visually. Notably, it takes forever for the hero's primary journey to start, and it involves a whole lot of talking and explanation once it does.

Tatum is Marcus Aquila, son of a soldier whose reputation has been tarnished by the fact that he failed to come back from Scotland alive with the gold eagle emblem of his regiment. Early on, we see Aquila go into battle against several Braveheart types from the north, and acquit himself well, but he still has something to prove. So after he saves the life of a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell) in the local gladiator arena, he persuades the poor sucker to accompany him north to find the shiny bird, and maybe learn of his father's fate.

The Eagle is oddly subversive in a way that we can't entirely be sure is intentional. It gets you rooting for Aquila, both by focusing on his story and by casting perennial movie hero Tatum.

Yet, viewed more objectively, his character is anything but in the right.

His people are conquerors who've run roughshod over the locals, seizing their lands while killing and enslaving. He owns a slave...granted, Aquila treats Esca decently, aside from the whole "conscripting him into a near-suicidal mission" thing. And all for the sake of a shaped piece of gold that represents an over-indulgent, oppressive empire. One that's arguably more civilized than the rest of the world, yes, but shouldn't the locals get to make up their own mind about that?

Not that this would be the first action movie to have dubious values, of course. The problem is that this barely qualifies as an action movie. After Aquila's initial battles, there's ample sitting and conversation, and once Aquila and Esca enter Scotland, it seems like nearly all they do is, yep, talk to people.

Eventually, they encounter the Seal tribe, who cover their bodies with mud and wear what must be seal pelts—these, finally, are scary adversaries. And eventually our heroes fight them. But damn, it takes a while. And is hardly worth the wait.

The 180—a Second Opinion: Macdonald pulls out one genuinely nasty gross-out during the film's final act that, while gratuitous, may be the most effective moment in the movie.

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