When two films come out on the same subject at around the same time, there's usually a clear victor. And although it came out several months ago, and very few people saw it, I have to give the "Best Romans fighting Picts north of Hadrian's Wall Movie" award to Centurion. The Neil Marshall-directed movie starred Michael Fassbender and was a tense action-thriller full of scenic highland chases. Kevin MacDonald's The Eagle is also a tense action-thriller, but it stars Channing Tatum, and while he's believable as an American soldier in... well, every movie he makes, he's less believable as the commander of a Roman legion. Not even giving all the other Romans American accents can cover up the fact that the man's not a terribly dynamic actor. That said, the movie is entertaining, and even occasionally humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally), and you'll definitely never look at Billy Elliot the same way ever again.
Based on the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, the film begins as centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) assumes his first command, an outpost in restless Britain. It's immediately attacked by the locals, and an injured Marcus recuperates at the villa of his uncle Donald Sutherland, possibly the most sarcastic Roman ever. Marcus is given a high honor... and promptly discharged for his injuries, thereby thwarting his attempts to restore his family name. See, his father led the Ninth Legion, which vanished in northern Britain 20 years ago, prompting the Empire to build Hadrian's Wall to keep the killer Picts out. A tactless politician is placed in the film to show that the population at large finds the Ninth's disappearance to be embarrassing, specifically because their standard (the Eagle) was lost, and that the missing men are failures. Now I'm not Roman, but you have to be a huge douche to speak ill of the dead for not bringing back a statue of a bird, especially in front of their children.
When he hears a rumor that the Eagle has been spotted north of the Wall, Marcus decides to go on a solo mission to retrieve it. Told he won't survive on his own, he opts to bring his British slave, Eska (Jamie Bell), a gift from Uncle Donald Sutherland after Marcus saved him from a gladiator fight. Eska has sworn loyalty to Marcus, but he hates the Romans with a passion, thereby setting up a "will he or won't he" betrayal story. Travelling beyond the wall, the two trek through the highlands searching for the site of the Ninth's ambush, and ultimately for the location of the Eagle itself. Along the way, they meet filthy villagers, shirtless warriors and a Roman deserter played by Mark Strong, with an American accent, of course, and barely recognizable with long hair and a full beard. We also learn more about Eska, and meet one of the deadliest tribes in Britain, the painted (and fictional) Seal People, who look like characters out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
MacDonald's use of American accents for the Romans was intentional, based on the fact that the United States is the new Roman Empire, and I have to admit that it makes the early siege of the fort and hostage-taking of Romans by the locals an eerie parallel to the U.S.'s presence in the Middle East. Other than that, Romans speaking like Americans is, for some reason, very, very funny. Straight-laced character actor Denis O'Hare (True Blood) is particularly entertaining as Tatum's second-in-command, even though he really doesn't do much other than give him status updates on the latrines. It says something that his small role stands out in the film, while Tatum and Bell's angry, characterless performances blend into the background. There are only a few true action scenes in the entire movie and they're not particularly well-choreographed, making it difficult to tell what's going on until the fight is over and the losers are dead. The rest of the film is primarily a road trip, and while there's plenty of time to develop the relationship between these two characters, it's difficult to explain why the two become friends, aside from the fact that their father were both soldiers. The rest is just one long, rainy travel montage.
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