“The Eagle” isn’t smart enough to be engrossing or campy enough to be a guilty pleasure.
Instead it’s a perfectly average sword-and-sandal effort that gets some mileage out of its rarely seen setting (Roman-occupied Britain) and a production design that’s heavy on the dark and dank.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” Kevin Macdonald’s film is a sort of buddy movie wrapped up in a quest yarn.
Young Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives in Britain to take his new command at a remote outpost. In addition to dealing with the depredations of the local tribes and the unfitness of his troops, Marcus carries some personal baggage.
Twenty years earlier, in the year 120, 5,000 Roman soldiers led by his father vanished without a trace in the wilds of northern Britain. Lost with the men was their standard, a gold eagle.
Marcus has this harebrained idea that if he can recover the eagle of the lost Ninth Cohort, he can restore his tarnished family name. He gets his chance when, while recovering from battle wounds that have ended his military career, he is presented with a slave by his uncle (Donald Sutherland).
Esca (Jamie Bell, the original Billy Elliot) is the son of a vanquished British chieftain. Since Marcus was instrumental in saving his life in the arena, Esca now feels obliged to serve the hated Roman.
More than that, he agrees to use his language skills and familiarity with the terrain to help Marcus venture north of Hadrian’s Wall into enemy territory.
Their journey is beset with difficulties and dangers. Moreover, their only chance of success is to swap roles: To be accepted by the painted locals, Marcus must pretend to be Esca’s unspeaking slave.
This is a situation rife with dramatic possibilities, most of which are shrugged off by screenwriter Jeremy Brock (“The Last King of Scotland”).
“The Eagle” has a few satisfying action scenes – particularly an early clash between Roman troops and a marauding tribe – but in general Macdonald shows no particular skill at staging or capturing onscreen mayhem.
The action is over-edited and so busy it’s hard to tell what’s going on; moreover, Macdonald is hampered by a PG-13 rating that keeps the brawling essentially bloodless.
At least production designer Michael Carlin delivers, creating a primeval world of rock and forest in which the simple civilized accoutrements of Roman society seem like temporary visitors just waiting to be swept aside.
Dramatically, “The Eagle” is pedestrian. Tatum and Bell have no chemistry, and a late-breaking development involving survivors of the Ninth Cohort (among them the ubiquitous Mark Strong) is simply silly.