The Eagle may be the most unexpectedly enjoyable movie of 2011 to date. Not the best movie — it's trumped by Rango, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Source Code off the top of my head — but simply the most pleasant surprise. The wildly lukewarm critical response and presence of Channing Tatum indicated overwhelming mediocrity, but turns out it's an underrated, eminently watchable meat 'n' potatoes action-adventure flick that I'd recommend to anyone looking for some unpretentious fun. Way, way before I'd recommend Battle: Los Angeles for the same thing, that's for damn sure.
Channing Tatum plays (the fictional) Marcus Flavius Aquila, a second-century Roman centurion and son of a commander in the (nonfictional) Ninth Legion, which disappeared in northern Britain twenty years earlier. Despite that lingering shame, Marcus up and proves himself as a military commander before being wounded and honorably discharged, leaving him despondent and with little to live for. He later saves a slave named Esca from execution by gladiator, and the two take off into hostile and unexplored northern British territory to track down and recover the Ninth Legion's lost golden eagle standard. Needless to say, fights, battles, and chases ensue.
The relationship between Marcus and Esca gives the movie an interesting hook as it doesn't take the easy way out of having them be buddy-buddy as soon as Marcus rescues him. In fact, Esca makes it known shortly thereafter that he loathes Marcus, the Romans, and everything they stand for and would just as soon see them all dead, but he is honor bound to Marcus for saving his life. The movie lets this tension simmer admirably and occasionally erupt as they plunge deeper into enemy territory and the titles of master and slave become increasingly blurred and meaningless, and it's actually pretty fun to watch. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to reveal that they gradually begin to develop some mutual respect, and I like that the movie makes them get there from the ground level. Jamie Bell is pretty likable as Esca, and hell, I'll admit it, even Channing isn't too bad.
There's nothing overwhelmingly special or fancy about the fights and larger battle sequences, but if there's one thing the CGI headache of Sucker Punch should have taught us it's that sometimes less is more. A few dudes banging swords together is A-OK so long as it's decently choreographed, has some weight to it, and you're reasonably invested in the characters at hand. It's all PG-13 safe, and while I probably would have liked it more with some R-rated bloodshed, that's only because I'm a bloodthirsty savage. There's no real swearing and not the slightest hint of sexuality, so as is the movie is pretty safe for grandparents everywhere.
As with last year's Centurion, there's something slightly uncomfortable about the movie positioning Romans — i.e. the invading force — as our heroes and the British — i.e. defenders of their country — as the villains. It feels a bit like rooting for the Galactic Empire. But in all fairness, both The Eagle and Centurion avoid depicting the Celtic antagonists as mustache-twirlers, in both films giving them dialogue about how the Romans invaded their homes, killed their sons and raped their daughters, and in both movies there's Roman characters who appear shitty, unscrupulous, and devoid of honor and courage in a way the Celts are never depicted as. Still though, if they make another film around this setting and era maybe it's time for a British protagonist.
The most interesting structural concept at work in The Eagle is that it starts with what's basically an entirely self-contained twenty-minute opening movie, complete with its own conflicts, character arcs, three-act structure, climactic battle, and a cast that's entirely switched out except for Channing Tatum upon completion. Marcus Aquila arrives to command a small Roman outpost in the opening minutes and is met with fairly open distrust at his family background and leadership methods. But respect follows quickly enough when his new fortifications save the outpost from attack, and it comes down to a final battle on the field out front in which Marcus is wounded but survives. Then the movie starts all over again with Marcus recovering from his wounds in south Britain before meeting Esca, with basically no continuity with the opening segment whatsoever except for Marcus having a limp.
I actually find this really interesting in how defiant it is of contemporary narrative structure. Except for a few references to the wound and a scene where Marcus gets surgery, both of which occur before Marcus and Esca head north, the opening twenty minutes could be entirely, cleanly deleted without any impact on the larger narrative whatsoever. It's like the pretitle sequences of some of the older James Bond movies, except even longer. But this standalone opening war sequence is arguably to the movie's benefit, giving it the feel of watching an epic TV miniseries. It makes the story feel bigger and more sprawling.
The Eagle also has perhaps the least female presence of any movie I've seen since Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, despite being based on a novel by the assuredly female Rosemary Sutcliff. There isn't a single credited actress or woman with a line of dialogue in 114 minutes (although there are a few female extras). And you thought 300 was beefcake city! Between that, all the warfare, and the depiction of a simpler time of widespread slavery and social inequality, I'd say this is the greatest film for closeted gay Republicans to come along in years.
While I'm not about to make any argument that The Eagle is an overlooked masterpiece or a film people will revisit for years to come (and I doubt it'll make my top movies of 2011 list), I do think it deserves more credit than it got. It's a hearty, filling mix of hack 'n' slash action, sweeping landscape cinematography, and bromance that easily passes the time. I hope it gets a little more attention on Netflix than it got at the box office.
3 Stars out of 5