The Eagle is not a bad movie. You will see reviews that attempt to convince you of this, but they’re reacting to something more complex than the film being bad. The Eagle is a failed movie; it’s a movie that should be better, that has a chance to be something unique and awesome, but ultimately stumbles.
The film’s opening gives a hint at how it might have been special; Channing Tatum plays a young Roman soldier sent to the wilds of Britain to head a fort on the edge of the frontier. But Tatum hasn’t been sent there as punishment - rather he wanted the assignment because years before his father had been stationed there, and he led the legendary Ninth Legion into the wilderness… where they disappeared. Shame has hung on the family since, and Tatum’s character believes that if he recovers the Legion’s golden eagle standard he can clear up the family name.
Director Kevin Macdonald takes an easygoing, slow approach into the story. We spend time with Tatum at his new posting, see him as a strong leader, get to understand the Roman occupation, have a big battle. The film’s opening 20 minutes are interesting and exciting but paced at their own rate, and the film’s main story doesn’t begin until almost a half hour in - injured in battle, Tatum is being sent home to Rome a hero, but with his personal mission unfulfilled. Teaming up with a British slave whose life he saved from the arena - Jamie Bell - he sneaks north into unsettled territory, just the two of them, searching out the standard.
The Eagle has all of the elements of a strong, masculine buddy film… except the leads. I really, really like Channing Tatum, but there’s something wrong about him in this role. It isn’t his accent - Macdonald has purposefully cast Tatum to come across as a Southern American Marine, and the film’s approach to accents is not period film classical. Every actor brings their own accents and cadences to their roles, something that can be jarring to audiences used to hearing Masterpiece Theater English as the tongue of the world pre-Holy Roman Empire. I love that tactic; it removes the distance inherent in a period piece and allows us to understand the characters as people, not as distant and weird humans from an alien society.
But again, something just doesn’t work with Tatum. Or with Bell, to be honest. Tatum’s role needs to be played by a young Charlton Heston type, a towering authority figure. And Bell’s role - a wily, crafty Briton - needs to be played by someone with more violence in his heart. A young Robert Blake would have been perfect, someone simmering just under the surface. Try as he might, Bell doesn’t simmer.
And so with the central pair not quite right - they’re not totally wrong but they’re not quite right - the film never gels. The story, based on a popular UK young adult novel called The Eagle of the Ninth, is already a little bit shaggy and small scale, and it needs the two leads to be powerful to work. Neither are powerful enough, and their chemistry isn’t where it needs to be. As a result the film has no center, and while Macdonald shoots some interestingly bleak Northern UK scenery and does a couple of good battle scenes (the first scene, an assault on a Roman fort, is particularly excellent), it’s not enough to breathe life into the film.
What’s weird is that the movie simply isn’t gay enough. The joke about every good buddy film is that the two leads come across as lovers, and that’s the level of chemistry and tension needed to bring a story like that to life. You have to believe the guys would die for each other, and there’s an underlying romantic aspect to that - usually unspoken in these films, but there nonetheless. There’s no such tension in The Eagle, no feeling that either of these guys would be willing to do anything more than the polite least for the other. And so we’re left with another muddy entry in the sword and sandals genre but without the heart needed to get to the next level.
I like The Eagle well enough; Macdonald does his best and the two leads really work hard, but it’s to little avail. The movie’s a reasonable time-passer, especially for those who really like watching Roman era movies, but if you have to choose just one Ninth Legion film to ever watch, I’d tell you to choose Neil Marshall’s brasher, pulpier and ultimately much more successful Centurion.