‘The Eagle’ movie review: Channing Tatum in an old-fashioned adventure

Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle may not bring anything new to the table, but it’s a refreshingly old-fashioned action-adventure, a B-movie that is content to deliver B-movie thrills. Tough and masculine (there isn’t a single female amongst the 30-something actors in the film’s credited cast), target audiences should be more than satisfied, though those expecting a historical epic are likely to be disappointed.

The titular eagle is a golden statue, lost along with 5,000 Roman soldiers of the Ninth Legion during an ill-advised mission past Hadrian’s Wall into Northern Britannia (modern-day Scotland). 

Twenty years later, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), the son of the general who led the expedition, finds himself defending an outpost south of the wall; his leadership against a Celtic tribe earns him military decoration, but injuries from the battle also earn him an honorable discharge.

Recuperating at a villa owned by his uncle (Donald Sutherland), Aquila decides to resume his career and restore his family name by travelling to the north and reclaiming the eagle. His only companion for this perilous journey through vast wilderness and warring tribes is the slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who Marcus saved from gladiatorial execution.

Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s bestselling novel The Eagle of the Ninth (previously made into a 1977 BBC miniseries), Jeremy Brock’s screenplay struggles with scope at first but finds its footing with the introduction of the Esca character, who provides a nice balance to Aquila; their growing – but wary – relationship lies at the heart of the film.

Despite a PG-13 rating in the US, the film rarely shies away from graphic violence; the battle scenes are so hyper that we rarely catch more than a glimpse of bloodshed at a time, but there’s also an onscreen decapitation (effectively conveyed via a wide shot) and the execution of a small child. The latter feels gratuitous and unnecessary; the film has not earned this scene, nor does it need it.

While there’s really only two of them, those battle scenes are the one real detriment here, an incoherent mix of handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing; something happens during these scenes, but we don’t find out what, exactly, until they’re over (we don’t even realize a major character has died until we spot his corpse amongst the dead). Unfortunately, that’s to be expected these days.

Director MacDonald was a renowned documentarian (One Day in September won him an Oscar, and Touching the Void remains one of the most thrilling adventure films in recent memory) before finding critical success in the fiction features The Last King of Scotland and State of Play. The Eagle feels like something of a departure for him – no awards await this one – but MacDonald fully understands the material and faithfully delivers it to the screen.

Location cinematography in Scotland (by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle) is among The Eagle‘s chief strengths; lush greens and luminous blues help provide the film with a memorable landscape. The mentality may be old-fashioned low-budget, but this is still an A-list production; for the true B-movie experience, see Neil Marshall’s similar Centurion.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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