Like Robert Redford, Paul Newman or Brad Pitt, Channing Tatum has the strong-jawed good looks and stoic demeanor of a natural-born movie star. What he lacks is a sense of inner life, a spark of internal fire: When the camera trains on him, you can practically hear the wind whistling through his head. In The Eagle, Tatum plays the young Marcus Aquila, the son of the leader of Rome’s Ninth Legion, which marched into Northern Britain in 140 A.D. and vanished — in the process losing their symbolic golden eagle standard.
Marcus, eager to restore the luster to his family name, orders a resourceful slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), to accompany him on a dangerous trek north to reclaim the prized statue. A Brit whose life Marcus saved in the gladiatorial arena, Esca agrees, although the movie keeps us guessing for a while whether he plans to slit Marcus’ throat the moment the opportunity arises. The Eagle, which is based on the 1954 novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, marks a backward step for director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, the documentary Touching the Void), who is neither able to make history interesting nor turn the film’s plentiful battle sequences into something more than the usual jumble of quick jump cuts and edits that render the action unintelligible.
To be fair, Macdonald is saddled with a leading man who never seems truly connected with his character. Tatum is better in an ensemble than as a lead. You never believe his Marcus would be capable of leading an army into battle or even commanding the respect of war-weary soldiers. Bell (Billy Elliot) fares much better at portraying a complex man whose allegiance isn’t always obvious: Once he and Marcus venture deep into Northern Britain, where the Romans hold no power, Bell makes you question just how strong his allegiance to his master really is. But the movie answers that question too quickly, as if Macdonald were afraid of confusing his audience.
Aside from the thin characterizations, The Eagle never manages to convey the importance of the heroes’ quest. It doesn’t convince you that this statue is worth risking anyone’s life. That lack of context could be the result of the confines of a two-hour movie, but Macdonald’s emphasis on action and large-scale-battle set pieces over history compound the problem. The Eagle is handsomely shot and has a couple of rousing sequences, but most of it remains muted and distant, saddled by a leading man whose 15 minutes are almost up.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim.
Director: Kevin Macdonald.
Screenwriter: Jeremy Brock. Based on the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Producer: Duncan Kenworthy.
A Focus Features release. Violence, gore, adult themes. Running time: 114 minutes. Opens Friday Jan. 11 at: area theaters.