Who knew that the western would die out -- but the sword-and-sandal action film would survive?
That seems to be the case. Or at least I can remember more toga-wearing characters than those with cowboy hats in the past couple of years. That soft-core Spartacus series is popular on pay-cable -- and now The Eagle is the second film in the past two years that seems to deal with Rome's lost Ninth Legion, which disappeared into the northern wilds of second-century Britain.
Like Centurion, The Eagle focuses on the Roman Empire's efforts to tame the wild tribes of what would become Scotland. And like Centurion, The Eagle traffics in brutal, hand-to-hand violence, usually edited until its fragmentary images feel disconnected, rather than deconstructed.
The story, otherwise, is a familiar exercise in odd-couple brotherhood. Channing Tatum, who has a reticence that still might make him a star if people don't mistake it for a vacant quality, plays Marcus Aquila, come to lead a northern fortress in Britain that is under attack by a local insurgency. His mission is two-fold: Besides quelling the rebellion, he is also searching for answers about his father, who disappeared leading the lost Ninth Legion two decades earlier.
A hero in the subsequent struggle, Marcus winds up sidelined with a crippling combat injury. But after rescuing a gutsy slave from the gladiator's ring, Marcus decides to work himself back into shape, with the aide of this slave, Esca (Jamie Bell). Eventually, he decides to go by himself -- with Esca -- beyond Hadrian's Wall to see if he can learn the secret of the Ninth Legion.
What he finds are fierce enemies, who dress and paint themselves like Native Americans. These are, in fact, Esca's people -- and suddenly Marcus finds that roles are reversed, and he is dependent on the slave for his life.
The savages here are implacable and combative, sparing Marcus only because he belongs to Esca. Which eventually leads to a showdown, but then it had to, didn't it?
Unfortunately, though Kevin McDonald was able to create tension with familiar-looking monsters in The Last King of Scotland, his action is mostly a flatline here, with sluggish broadsword clashes or quick-cut, chop-and-slash action sequences. The dramatics have an overheated quality, or perhaps oversteeped is more like it, given the insinuating performance by Donald Sutherland, as Marcus' wise and good-natured uncle.
But Tatum gives a mostly clenched-jaw performance, matched by Bell, whose own jaw receives a similar workout. They're both impressive physical specimens in the fight choreography, though neither of them are particularly fluid.
Otherwise, The Eagle is a low-grade action film hiding behind a nature-of-man's-exploration theme. Yes, it's a journey -- but it's a tedious interior journey. With external slashing.