Look out for Mark Strong. He is almost unrecognizable as Guern, one of the Seal People.
In 120 AD, 5,000 Romans traveled to the mountains of Scotland with the symbol of Rome's honor, the eagle. This gold plated statue represents all that Rome stands for. To the upset of all Romans, the eagle and all 5,000 soldiers never returned. Without their representation of honor, Rome was never the same. That is, until Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives.
20 years after the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, Marcus Aquila arrives to a Roman camp on English soil. He has come to bring honor back not only to his country, but also to his family's name. For 20 years, Marcus has had to live with the fact of his father leading 5,000 soldiers to death and losing the eagle. After a brave defending of his camp, Marcus awakes to find himself in care of his uncle (Donald Sutherland). Once recovered, Marcus is delivered an honorable discharge from the Roman army. Without a place in the army, Marcus must rely on himself and his british slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), to journey out to Scotland to find Rome's symbol of honor. Marcus and Esca must travel through mountains, forests and encounters with the blood-thirsty Seal People in order to not only bring back the eagle, but also restore honor to Rome and the Aquila name.
The Eagle is very much a traditional action/adventure story. The story has been done numerous times with honor needed to be restored to an unlikely hero. But the difference here is found in the camera-work. Rarely has a film felt as epic in scale and in the style of the journey. The opening shot of Romans boating their way to their new camp is one of the better shots of 2011 so far. The rest of the film maintains the same mastery of camera but falls to the wayside while the action and drama take hold of the wheel. The most surprising factor here is Channing Tatum. Tatum has spent the majority of his career just posing for the camera (I.E Step Up, G.I Joe and Dear John). Given a repetitive role in most Roman adventure films, Tatum actually draws interest as a son who loves his country as much as he does his father. At times, it's tough to tell who exactly he is fighting for. But that just furthers the interest of Marcus Aquila. Jamie Bell is a good side-dish, as usual. He always knows what to do but is sadly never given much time to shine outside of the loyal sidekick (He stars in The Adventures of Rin TIn TIn this winter). Donald Sutherland is a nice surprise and does what needs to be done as the voice of reason and support in the lack of presence from Marcus' father. Sutherland was clearly the perfect actor for this role. It's just unfortunate how small of a role it truly is. However, good acting and excellent camerawork don't always save a film.
The pacing of The Eagle is almost painfully slow. Pacing allows the film to reach it's promoted plot at just an hour into the runtime. At once Marcus and Esca travel past Hadrian's Wall, the pacing just slows down further. One key to the slow pace might be the chemistry between Tatum and Bell. While both actors do a great job at their roles, they are never given much of a connection past loyalty. And this loyalty is forced upon both of them seeing as Marcus never truly wanted a slave. Audiences will struggle to find a reason as to why the two are even communicating together as the film's runtime slugs on. Much to the film's demise, the last half of The Eagle is focused on the (lack of) chemistry between master and slave. Not to mention the absurd buddy-cop ending that wraps up the story. When a film goes from Roman wars to two unlikely friends laughing and walking towards the sunlight, hilarity ensues. In fact, it might make my list of favorite endings for 2011!
A surprisingly great performance from Channing Tatum isn't enough to save The Eagle from it's painfully slow pacing and the lack of chemistry between the two leads. You could see a lot worse in theaters right now. But to be fair, you could see a whole lot better than The Eagle.*
*If you're still in the mood for an ornithological movie, just go see Black Swan again.