It’s what happens when bad movies happen to good directors: That pretty much sums up Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle. After more-than-solid outings with The Last King of Scotland (2006) and State of Play (2009), Macdonald ultimately lost the battle between his talent and a movie that’s simply too dumb and stuffy on a purely genetic level. Macdonald has attempted to make a historical epic that’s a mix of Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000), but ends up with a movie that’s inherently more akin to Antoine Fuqua’s dreadful King Arthur (2004).
While that last comparison may be a bit harsh, Macdonald’s film is nevertheless just as dramatically inert, with only the director’s occasional outbursts of understated style keeping the movie afloat. It’s almost as if he’s pulling the simplistic, uninvolving script (from Last King of Scotland scribe Jeremy Brock) by the hair, kicking and screaming toward respectability, only to fall short.
The Eagle‘s existence as a one-note swords-and-sandals (and mud, since our heroes spend the bulk of the movie running around northern England) epic with only the idea of “honor” to expound upon reel after reel doesn’t help. Neither does Channing Tatum as an ancient Roman, who plays the role with the regality of a man with excellent enunciation, and all the charisma of a wet sock. It’s a movie that screams for a lead with some magnetism, but instead ends up with a sullen, humorless Tatum, who smacks only of an actor who wants to be taken seriously.
Then there’s the story, which finds Tatum as Marcus, an uber-heroic Roman who’s jaunted off to Britain in an attempt to restore the honor of his family by recovering a gold eagle that his father lost years ago. While this eagle may appear to be a tacky lawn ornament, it is in fact a symbol of all of Rome’s honor and accomplishment, and such a significant artifact that it seems like an odd thing to be hauling around barbaric England to begin with. Nonetheless, aided by his British slave Esca (Jamie “at least this isn’t Jumper” Bell)—who may or may not be trusted—Marcus takes off for the wastes of northern England to find out both the truth about the titular McGuffin and the fate of Marcus’ father.
Along the way, they fall into various adventures and run into Mark Strong wearing Nicolas Cage’s best wig, but the real point of the film is to espouse the virtues and meaning of honor in the most macho ways imaginable. This might work if Macdonald could shoot a coherent action scene that doesn’t suffer from Parkinson’s, or if The Eagle didn’t insist on making its point like a trained parrot, repeating itself over and over with no grasp of its actual content.
It’s difficult for me not to see this type of ultramasculine breast-beating as specious and not as significant or profound as Macdonald would like, especially when the end result is a lot of death and murder (including of children) for an idea whose worth is never proven and a prize that amounts to a really gaudy paperweight. When one minorly significant character dies toward the end of the film, the importance of his regained honor is paramount, while the wife and two kids he’s left behind are less than a non-issue. In fact, it’s entirely moot and never even brought up. It’s not that these kinds of misleading, undercooked ideas are surprising to find in an action movie, but it is disappointing that Macdonald—who’s been a thoughtful director in the past—doesn’t question them. Rated PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images.