REVIEW: Channing Tatum Can't Seem to Fly in The Eagle Despite Help from Jamie Bell
In period films, it always helps to have someone built to carry a sword, and Channing Tatum clearly hasn't missed a workout for the past two years so he fits the bill in that regard. What he's missing in The Eagle is that spark of the insane -- the slightly lunatic fever that makes us unable to keep our eyes off him. Instead, he's so distant, he looks slightly baked. It's supposed to be a combination of the thousand-yard-stare and lost in a state of continual flashback that director Kevin Macdonald cuts to reveal Tatum's "Inner Pain." Instead, the star seems irritated that his buzz will burn off before a new batch of edibles arrives.
Fortunately, The Eagle has Jamie Bell, who is possessed with a berserker's zeal (maintaining that tradition of crazy dudes in laced-leather shoes that reached its zenith with the ne plus ultra of blade-wielding machismo, Russell Crowe in Gladiator). Bell even harkens back to what they'd call a New Classic over on TNT (which translates into placeholder until the next Saving Private Ryan marathon); Daniel Day-Lewis burning-eyed turn in Last of the Mohicans. He even has a scene with a wounded and hallucinatory Tatum under a cave face with a stream of drizzle cascading over the pair. He swears to come back for his fallen comrade, and cable-watchers in airports the world over will see their own flashbacks triggered; Lewis' intoning "I Will Find You!" to Madeline Stowe. And, like Stowe, Tatum's make-up doesn't run under the flow of Nature's Tears. We're also reminded that this is the closest thing to romance in the film.
Tatum is Marcus Aquila, a Roman centurion born with an eye for military strategy. But -- as the loop of flashback rolling in his head makes evident -- Marcus is hobbled by the stories of his late father's failed campaign, and stories of his dad's cowardice. He votes to save the life of Esca (Bell) -- not Dave Pasternack's restaurant, but a stalwart slave. And the two of them begin a mission to recover the Eagle -- the standard that Marcus' father carried into battle.
Macdonald brings skills from his documentary filmmaking days (he directed the Oscar-winning One Day in September) to The Eagle; the action is clearly staged with such brio that this movie should be used as an action film tutorial -- a boldness, enforced by Macdonald and editor Justine Wright, that brings to mind Russ Heath's famous "132 Roman Soldiers" painting that adorned the back of '60s comic books. A dawn-set chase with waves of mist bathed in early sunlight is breathtakingly beautiful; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) delivers the mossy luminosity that is Iceland. And in narrative terms, we always know exactly where we are, a reminder that The Eagle is mostly text, rather than subtext; there's so little undercurrent after establishing that the Romans -- with their American accents (except for Donald Sutherland's Canadian trill) -- are a thoughtless imperialist force that the movie's single mindedness starts to exhaust us as much as it does the actors.
As he did in The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald defines the dangers over confusing personal loyalty with military duty -- Marcus understands that demarcation at the outset, but it must be reinforced in his relationship with Esca. And Macdonald isn't being glib about the perils of misplaced devotion; he's demonstrated an interest in showing that both sides can be mistaken. But nearly everything in The Eagle feels like text carved into a tablet, and the stolid Tatum's lack of an inner life reinforces that miscalculation; he stoicism reminiscent of Brule the Pict from Robert E. Howard's Kull the Conqueror. That leaves room for Bell's dexterous expressiveness to take over -- unfortunately it's just not enough to fill the void.