While muscularly directed action-wise but melodramatically self-serious, slightly silly and emotionally distant, the historical action flick from the director of "State of Play" isn't particularly memorable either. Handsome cipher Channing Tatum plays a Roman soldier whose father walked into the Scottish mist with 5,000 soldiers and never returned. His father's disappearance, along with all of those other soldiers, is more than just a mystery and a source of consternation for the proud Roman army; it's a personal blight on our hero and something he's desperate to overcome. No matter how much he succeeds in his own militaristic career, he's forever known as the son of the man who led all those soldiers to their doom. Yes, the heir must restore the honor of his father; and yes, you've seen this story many, many times before.
Years later, the Romans are still entrenched in their battle against the indigenous Scottish population (identified in last year's similar film "Centurion" as "Picts," unnamed here), building a large, Great Wall of China-style divide (Hadrian's Wall) in the northern part of the country, and regularly engaging in bloody skirmishes. It's during one of these epic battles, which it should be noted is breathlessly paced and gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Antichrist," "Slumdog Millionaire," Macdonald's own "Last King of Scotland"), that Tatum's centurion Marcus Aquila, is horribly injured.
It's then that he's sent away to live with his uncle (Donald Sutherland) up near Hadrian's Wall to rest and recuperate (because, you know, his pride, as well as his muscle-y body, were injured). It's here that he rescues a Scottish slave named Esca (Jamie Bell) from a gladiatorial match, adopting him, somewhat uncomfortably, as a slave. It's in his uncle's community that Aquila also starts hearing rumors that the titular Eagle, a kind of mast head for his father's lost legion, has been spotted just beyond the wall. Soon enough a plan is hatched: Aquila will go over the wall, incognito, and, with the help of his slave (as a guide and interpreter), steal back the Eagle, which will return glory to his family's name and at least offer some kind of explanation as to what happened to the soldiers.
Once their journey is underway, the film really starts to solidify as a kind of historical buddy movie, every bit the "boy's adventure story" as the book it's based on (1954's "The Eagle of the Ninth" by Rosemary Sutcliff, which sounds like it's about a bird of prey in a putting green). The two travel across the lushly lensed highlands, interrogating the locals while always on the look out for the "seal people," a particularly nasty bunch of Scots. At one point they come across a survivor of the original legion (played by the always stupendous, but in this case underused Mark Strong), who has lived on the other side of the wall by laying low and blending in. In typical buddy movie fashion they are often clashing and butting heads and, in order to survive, are forced to swap roles as master and slave (role playing alert) when picked up by the villainous seal people.
And wouldn't you know it? They're the ones that have the Eagle. This actually gives the movie a nice, intensely tuned-up third act to work with, since the duo have to evade detection while in the enemy's company, steal back the Eagle, and get across the wall to safely occupied Roman territory. As urgency in the story sets in, the action set pieces intensify accordingly. The realization of the indigenous Scots takes on an ethereal "Wicker Man"-style heathen spookiness and the race to retrieve the icon and get across the wall produces a series of intense and well-choreographed battles (things get pretty visceral for a PG-13 rated movie).
The key issue, among many of the problems in "The Eagle," lies in our lack of connection with what the Eagle actually, you know, is. Tons of action movies have been based around an inanimate object with inherent power -- in everything from "The Maltese Falcon" to the 'Indiana Jones' movies, a mystical doodad has been fought over and searched for. But here, since we have no real understanding of Aquila's relationship with his father (they are seen only fleetingly, in brief, gauzy flashbacks) and no real conception of both what the Eagle meant to the Romans and how Aquila's life has been shaped by the Eagle's disappearance. Instead, we just kind of have to go with it, trusting that the glittery hood ornament is worth all that trouble. We have to believe the near tears and chestpuffing and huffing about all this is, well, important 'n stuff.
As a historically nebulous Saturday afternoon entertainment, "The Eagle" works if you're just looking for a semi-serviceable and entertaining actioner, but nothing connects emotionally and all the character's self-importance is rather comical. Macdonald, again working with his "Last King of Scotland" writer Jeremy Brock, brings a kind of earthen texture to the proceedings, which are electrically paced and beautifully shot. Macdonald doesn't rely on computer generated images for awe, since almost everything is physically realized. This lends the action sequences a real sense of weight, heft and danger; when things smack into each other or swords clash, you really do feel it. It's a level of reality that you wish had been sprinkled elsewhere in the movie (like, say, some kind of unification with the accents...great job on that casual and modern American, "hey dudes, what's going on?" twang from Denis O'Hare). But while it looks good, the texture and depth of the piece ends there.
Tatum, who up until now has served as a kind of cardboard superhero type, does a fair enough job with his role, but in the end doesn't break his neanderthal-like mien. It's not expansive or emotional by any stretch of the imagination, but at least he's not looking dead-eyed into the camera like he was in "G.I. Joe," and his on-screen chemistry with Jamie Bell is pretty solid. Yes, "chemistry" is really the only way to describe it; they may be "bro-mantic" but this was about one tender moment away from being "Brokeback Mountain: Roman Edition" which provides for a lot of unintentional laughter. At one point you're just thinking, "drop the swords, stop yelling at each other and spitting in each other's faces and get it on already."
It's questionable how much you'll really get out of "The Eagle" if you're not a 13-year-old boy who's excited by the prospect of men slashing each other with giant swords, but as it stands it's a sturdily made, if not quite emotionally compelling or mentally absorbing action picture. Frankly, from Macdonald we expect a lot, lot more. It isn't quite as viscerally satisfying (or darkly humorous) as last year's "Centurion," which had the benefit of carrying with it an R-rating and a director (Neil Marshall) who doesn't know the meaning of the word "subtlety." "Centurion" was also bolstered by a lead performance by Michael Fassbender, an actor that can make old-timey hooey sound legitimate in any accent, something that Channing Tatum just isn't capable of yet. [C+]