Film journalists might gripe about empty-headed movies, yet there’s something even more aggravating about a movie that tries to say something despite having no idea exactly what that “something” is. In 140 A.D. Roman-occupied Great Britain, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a soldier’s son haunted by an infamous military debacle in which his father never returned from an expedition in the north of Britain, losing the golden eagle standard in the process. But with the help of a native Briton slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus undertakes a likely suicide mission into the untamed north to recover the eagle.
Complex questions about the moral quagmire of empire and occupation theoretically abound. Do we sympathize with Marcus, on a quest to restore an “honor” based on raping, pillaging and generally subduing the local populace? Or with Esca, honorably devoting himself to a man who represents the subjugation of his countrymen? While Esca gets a few speeches slamming the Romans, this isn’t a tale like Braveheart that’s squarely on the side of the brave freedom-fighters.
When we first glimpse of a full community of native Britons, it’s the ferocious “Painted People,” whose coming-of-age rituals are shot in tilted angles emphasizing their primitive strangeness. Meanwhile, the long-lost Roman soldier that Marcus meets is a tragic figure haunted by the shame of his failed mission. Score one for making the first global superpower the underdog.
Last year’s Centurion also dealt with a Roman soldier confronting relentless native guerilla action in the British Isles, and while that film was hardly a piercing geopolitical treatise, it stripped down the story to a manageable size, and was savvy enough not to be stingy about the sword-and-sandals mayhem. The Eagle plays as a simplistic adventure that wants to be taken seriously, but never has the guts to stake out a point of view. Grade: C-
Opens Feb. 11. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.