Self-important allegory about Romans in northern Britain is all phony bloodfest, no gusto.
Around 117 A.D. the Roman Ninth Legion marched into remote northern Britain and vanished. "The Eagle," a humorless costume actioner set 20-some years afterward, will follow them to oblivion in about a week.
The film follows a young Roman centurion on a quest to uncover the truth about his father's disappearance, and to reclaim the golden eagle that was the lost legion's battle standard. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila with an earnest furrowed brow that could indicate gravitas or constipation. As his glowering Celtic slave and guide Esca, Jamie Bell is deep into ulcer territory.
The pair venture north past the empire's farthest frontier, where they encounter surly tribes in Road Warrior hides, Roman deserters gone native who hold key information about the lost legion, and foods more repulsive than haggis. The soundtrack of the last half-hour consists of blades going swisssshhhh! and stuntmen crying "Aaaaarrrrrggggghh!"
"The Eagle," directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland," "Touching the Void") spatters gallons of hemoglobin with every weapon in the 2nd-century war chest. Yet for all the arterial mist, there's a lack of gladiatorial gusto. The film carries itself like a self-important allegory about armies facing enemy guerrillas in harsh, faraway terrain (gee, what other country is symbolized by an eagle?) but it's phony down to its toenails. The film is really just heavy-spirited. Most of its highlights are on Marcus' breastplate.
Mark Strong, the best supporting actor in every film in which he appears, makes a vivid contribution as a veteran who questions why Rome covets a land with nothing of value to take. Performance standards dip with Donald Sutherland, jarringly miscast as Marcus' uncle. His adenoidal voice, Canadian inflections and old hippie hairstyle make him hard to swallow as a noble Roman. The real disappointment of the film is its chicken-hearted script -- spoiler alert -- which unbelievably turns master and slave into best chums at the fade-out. This "Eagle" is a dodo.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186