More like a classical, vaguely homoerotic Western than the kind of sword-and-sandals Roman epic we might expect, Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle isn't exactly a good movie, but it can be a supremely enjoyable one with the right attitude. The first and most significant challenge is in accepting Channing Tatum, a square-jawed and irrevocably American actor, as a Roman centurion named Marcus Flavius Aquila, returning to the wild northern territory of England 20 years after his father led a military expedition into certain death. Tatum's detractors will scoff immediately and check out, but anyone willing to move beyond that will find in The Eagle some well-shot action, spectacular Scottish scenery, a lot of vaguely campy pontificating about the glory of Rome, and a bromance for the ancient ages.
Marcus, living like so many heroes in ol' pop's shadow, arrives to his military station at the furthest reaches of the Roman empire, which in the second century was somewhere near the Scottish border. After being heroically wounded in battle Marcus decides the only way to restore the family name is to travel much farther north beyond Hadrian's Wall to recover The Eagle of the Ninth, the symbol of his father's lost unit and, wouldn't you know it, the symbol of Rome itself. Accompanying Marcus is the unwilling slave Esca (Jamie Bell), whose life Marcus spared in a gladiatorial contest and who owes Marcus big.
The unlikely duo travels and travels, through mountains and forest and streams, past native people who live in huts and occasionally attack them in the woods, operating on only the faintest hint that the Eagle even still exists. The wild scenery, filmed by Slumdog Millionaire Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle, is enchanting, but Marcus and Esca's journey starts to feel like exactly the slog it is until they finally meet up with the Seal People, the coastal tribe now hoarding the Eagle. Their faces caked in mud and led by a feral and terrifying prince played by A Prophet's Tahar Rahim, the Seal People are fascinating and strange-- though they're invented for the purposes of the film, they had an odd, alien ring of truth. For the sake of their survival in the village Esca pretends Marcus is in fact his slave, a sorta-kinda betrayal that, of course, leads to a manly reunion and a thrilling escape.
Tatum and Bell do much better with the standoffish, cold part of their relationship than the huggy, we-need-each-other stuff that comes later, though both commit admirably to hoisting swords and galloping down mountainsides on horseback while shouting-- a key component of the film, for better or for worse. With Mark Strong and Denis O'Hare also popping in for small roles the film includes enough welcome character actors to perk up the screen when the actual stars can't do it, and the handful of action scenes, though sometimes preposterous in concept, jump up with real energy. More than anything both Macdonald and his star Tatum seem to really believe in what they're bringing us, over-serious and grimy as it may be; Tatum is often derided for being expressionless and muted on screen, but something about his grim determination to succeed, dammit, adds to our belief in Marcus's crazy mission.
There's no setting The Eagle next to other films about ancient Rome, other Westerns with similar plots, or even Braveheart; it's more similar than it wants to admit to last year's Centurion, a similarly flawed film about Roman soldiers in ancient England that at least had the benefit of being a little stranger. But The Eagle's hokey pleasures were enough for me, its macho enthusiasm about itself somehow infectious. At the very least, it's probably the only Western set in northern Scotland, and that must count for something.