Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald is as gifted a documentarian as he is a feature filmmaker--he just premiered the brilliant YouTube/Ridley Scott doc Life in a Day at Sundance, and has been given the helm on the first authorized Bob Marley documentary. Macdonald also directed the great Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, for which Forrest Whitaker won the Oscar. State of Play is his weakest effort to date.
Macdonald is back in top form with PG-13 Roman action-adventure The Eagle, adapted by Scotland's Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth. Vet U.K.. producer Duncan Kenworthy (Four Weddings and a Funeral) has wanted to turn his childhood fave into a movie for decades. Forget last year's similar but B-grade Centurion; this one is a stylish must-see.
Early reviews and the trailer are below (Focus Features opens the film February 11):
The Eagle puts athletic American hunk Channing Tatum into the unlikely guise of a 2nd century Roman Centurion searching the northern wastes of Britain for his lost father and Rome's missing golden standard, the Eagle. The Romans in the film use American accents, while Brits such as Jamie Bell get to keep their accents, accentuating the friction between them. As a warrior from a fictional tribe, great young actor Tahir Rahim (A Prophet) uses an ancient dialect with subtitles. Needless to say, the arrogant Roman gains wisdom when he is forced to allow his slave (Bell) to take the lead in hostile Caledonia, North of Hadrian's Wall.
This old-fashioned story well-told lets you sit back while a master filmmaker leads you through exotic places, epic battles, men with horses and swords and heroic derring-do. While it's not a big-budget Gladiator or Spartacus--its pleasures are on a leaner scale--it's gorgeously filmed by Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar-winning Anthony Dod Mantle in Hungary and the Scottish highlands in a naturalistic style. The Defiant Ones and Black Robe were clear inspirations for Macdonald.
Tatum has been doing strong work for a while now, from Ditto Montiel's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and sleeper dance hit Step Up to Kimberly Pierce's Stop Loss and Ron Howard's The Dilemma. Here he shows that he's growing into the necessary gravitas (despite the occasional New York intonation) to carry a movie.
Todd McCarthy, THR:
"...this story of colliding cultures and lost honor regained is more intimate and less brutal than most period epics made these days… For all his admirable qualities, Marcus Aquila is no more dimensional than a cartoon superhero intent upon righting a wrong. Tatum embodies such a figure in brawny fashion, to be sure, but there's nothing there except for an unwavering commitment to a goal. Bell has double the pleasure for being able to play two emotions, gratitude for being saved and resentment at being enslaved; effectively, he merges these into an intriguing ambiguity of intent toward Marcus once he gains the upper hand…With a young audience clearly in mind, the rapid cutting of action and battle scenes keeps actual violence and gore to a minimum, so much so that the grossest moment comes when the two men are reduced to eating a raw rodent for supper. Anthony Dod Mantle's agile camerawork vividly evokes the settings' beauty and danger in equal measure. Michael Carlin's production design and Michael O'Connor's costumes look convincingly hand-hewn, while the mud-caked look devised for the coastal primitives looks like a combination of aspects of American Indians, Easter Island natives and Kurtz's minions in Apocalypse Now."
Brian Lowry, Variety:
"An earnest throwback to an earlier brand of filmmaking, [it] plays like an amalgam of past toga-wearing adventure films. Anchored by a quest element, director Kevin Macdonald's take on Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel requires the audience to participate in considerable spackling to help fill in the story's emotional arc, beginning with the central bond between slave and master. While the movie doesn't wholly succeed, there's enough to like here -- including Channing Tatum's credible performance as a tradition-bound Roman soldier -- to prove modestly satisfying, albeit perhaps more to European auds than to history- and geography-challenged Americans."
John Hazelton, ScreenDaily:
"The Eagle, the second UK film in less than a year sparked by a mystery from the annals of Roman Britain, is a handsome but decidedly old fashioned historical adventure that casts rising Hollywood star Channing Tatum as its strapping Roman soldier hero. The casting and more mainstream tone should make this Kevin Macdonald-directed, Duncan Kenworthy-produced yarn a better commercial prospect than Neil Marshall’s grungier Centurion, though selling the Film4-Focus Features joint venture to Tatum’s young fan base may not be an easy task...Establishing empathy with Marcus and his very Roman quest to retrieve a military emblem at all costs was never going to be easy, and under Macdonald’s direction the story meanders until Marcus and Esca – who has his own mysterious back story – encounter the violent tribe that holds the key to the Eagle’s disappearance…While it doesn’t hew completely to tradition – the tribespeople, for example, look more like Native Americans than the usual hairy Picts – the film sometimes gets dangerously close to vintage Hollywood sword ‘n’ sandal territory, with American-accented Romans and much manly jaw clenching by Tatum and Bell."
Armond White, NYPress:
"[Macdonald] performs an appreciable act of imagination here. The Eagle’s focus on Marcus’ personal mission avoids the specious allegory of the insulting Prince of Persia (where antiquity was used to indulge pessimistic partisan views about U.S. involvement in Iraq and Iran) and steers clear of the dubious political metaphor in Macdonald’s contemporary espionage film State of Play...Tatum and Bell suggest junior league versions of Boorman’s modern masculine icons and of Zack Snyder’s macho-erotica in 300. These young actors are of the generation that instinctively channels the bravado of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, bringing a new generation’s unpretentiousness to ideas about patriotic machismo (notions that Jake Gyllenhaal reduced to posturing in Prince of Persia). Tall, rangy, athletic Tatum and scrappy, cunning Bell are also sensitive enough to act out brotherly fealty. They give The Eagle an innocent romanticism that is both unexpected but necessary."