Blu-Ray Review: Channing Tatum Fails to Take Flight in ‘The Eagle’

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CHICAGO – It’s safe to say Kevin Macdonald is a filmmaker more skilled in documentaries (“One Day in September,” “Touching The Void”) than he is in scripted narratives (“The Last King of Scotland,” the forgotten “State of Play” remake). His experience in nonfiction work is certainly reflected in the realism of his production design, but it doesn’t translate to his stories, which often take a shallow approach to real-life subjects.

As compelling as Macdonald’s latest effort, “The Eagle” may be, in terms of its premise and setting, it sinks under the weight of its moral hypocrisy. The concept of “honor” preached by the film’s characters seems as archaic and meaningless as its metallic MacGuffin. At a time when wars are waged and lives are lost for reasons that are arguably as senseless as they are corrupt, this idealistic portrait of noble bloodshed fails to stir the soul, particularly since its star, Channing Tatum, displays the emotional range of a soldier in a glossy U.S. Army commercial. Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0

Tatum has sported promise in other vehicles, particularly Kimberly Peirce’s woefully overlooked “Stop-Loss,” but his performance here is too wooden to take flight, paling in comparison to his consistently riveting co-star, Jamie Bell. Based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel, the film is set in 2nd century Britain, where a wall separates the northern half of the country from the southern section occupied by the Roman army. Though the Romans are heartless conquerors no less bloodthirsty than their supposedly more primitive nemeses, the audience is expected to sympathize with self-righteous Roman soldier Marcus (Tatum). He’s determined to reclaim his family’s honor two decades after his father mysteriously disappeared along with thousands of other soldiers north of the wall. Rome’s symbolic emblem, the titular golden eagle, was also lost and Marcus is determined to find it with the help of a reluctant, Roman-hating servant, Esca (Bell). Anthony Dod Mantle’s typically haunting cinematography contrasts gorgeous overcast skies with the grisly action on the ground, as Marcus and Esca attempt to navigate through the formidably dangerous wilderness. It’s here when the film finally (if sporadically) catches fire.

Channing Tatum stars in Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle.
Channing Tatum stars in Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

Yet Jeremy Brock’s script never truly grapples with the conflicts that would naturally emerge between a Roman soldier and a slave from the wrong side of the wall. Esca is portrayed as too loyal and Christ-like a figure to pose any real threat to Marcus’s safety. Though he’s given ample opportunities to embrace freedom, he still remains at the side of a man who really should be his archenemy throughout. The film is at its strongest when it allows shades of ambiguity to materialize, such as when a veteran soldier (well-played by Mark Strong) attempts to subvert Marcus’s views of his own people, claiming that the Romans’ ceaseless need to conquer lands was ultimately pointless (“There’s nothing here worth taking”). But the film still contrives ways to make the Romans look like the good guys by juxtaposing them with savage tribes (invented by Sutcliff) that queasily evoke memories of grotesque Native American stereotypes. The last twenty minutes hit one wrong note after another, culminating in a heroic walk into the sunset that belongs in a buddy action flick rather than an allegedly serious historical piece.  

The Eagle was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 21, 2011.
The Eagle was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 21, 2011.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

“The Eagle’ is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, Spanish, French and Descriptive Video Service audio tracks and includes a pocketBLU app and a digital copy of the film. The BD-Live-enabled disc includes an unrated version along with the PG-13-rated theatrical release. Though both versions are of identical length (114 minutes), the unrated cut features bloodier alternate footage, such as onscreen beheadings, though the violence is tame compared to modern period epics like HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Among the scant deleted scenes is a rather pointless chariot race that nevertheless would’ve given the film’s plodding opening section some levity, not to mention forward momentum. A variation on the scene in which Esca reveals his backstory to Marcus is staged much later in the picture and is considerably less antagonistic to the Romans. An excess of “Academy Award nominee” name-dropping is on display in the 12-minute featurette where Macdonald recalls his childhood love for the story while a narrator breathlessly tries to set up the historical backdrop.
In the audio commentary, Macdonald says that he struggled with writing the prologue’s title cards, attempting to articulate the intricate ancient conflict in the fewest words possible. Much of the sequences set north of the wall were shot in natural locations that the director had visited throughout his life, thus making the film even more of a nostalgia trip. The scenes in Roman-ruled Britain were shot in Hungary, where local craftsmen were enlisted to create realistic props that would’ve cost a fortune in Hollywood. One of the most striking moments in the commentary occurs when Macdonald mentions an alternate ending (included on the disc) that failed to play well with preview audiences. Unfortunately, the axed scene proves to be a far more satisfying resolution to the film, creating a poignant symbolism that makes the final cut look all the more wrongheaded in comparison. Then again, the ending wisecracks in the scrapped scene are even more cringe-inducing, as the heroes reflect on ideal destinations for future travel. It ends with one of them contemplating, “Maybe it doesn’t rain so much in Spain.” At least they don’t argue over whether it falls mainly on the plain.

‘The Eagle’ is released by Universal Home Entertainment and stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim and Donald Sutherland. It was written by Jeremy Brock and directed by Kevin Macdonald. It was released on June 21, 2011. The theatrical version is rated PG-13. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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