Add Kevin Macdonald to the list of film directors to keep an eye on in the future. Macdonald is best known for his Academy Award-nominated THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006), but that is just one among a number of impressive films already gracing his filmography. In 2009, Macdonald came out with a little-seen and very underrated film called STATE OF PLAY. The film starred Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck and it was an ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN type of story set in Washington, D.C. that involved a newspaper journalist involved in political espionage and scandal. I was rather surprised by how good that movie was. Fast forward to 2011 and Macdonald has come out with THE EAGLE, another film that most people will probably ignore (based on last weekend’s opening box office numbers) and most critics have failed to appreciate. Based on the overwhelming negative response from the critics, even I was a little apprehensive about seeing the film. However, see it I did and I’m all the more happy for it. THE EAGLE is good old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling, which is something of a rarity these days given how studios and filmmakers prefer to connect with a younger demographic by breaking the conventional modes of filmmaking. This is the sort of movie that I have no doubt that anyone who sees it will be thoroughly entertained by it.

THE EAGLE is an adaptation of the 1954 historical adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth. The title refers to a golden eagle statute that represents the might of Rome. A Roman legion, the Ninth, was a renowned military force that carried with it the eagle statute wherever the legion went. When the legion embarks upon the unexplored regions of Northern Britain, it encounters a band of Celtic tribesmen who massacre the legion and take the eagle. 20 years later, a young Roman centurion gets assigned to a Roman fort in Southern Britain. The centurion, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), is trying to uncover the truth about the disappearance of the legion and his father, who led the Ninth legion. Upon the invitation of his uncle (Donald Sutherland), Aquila attends a gladiator battle where he meets a Celtic slave, Esca (Jamie Bell). Rescuing the slave, Aquila and Esca travel to Northern Britain to find out what happened to the legion, Aquila’s father, and to recover the eagle.

Although I don’t think this will be a problem if you decide to see THE EAGLE in a movie theater because you will have paid for a ticket to see it, you might be tempted to stop the film if you wait until it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray. The first 30 minutes of the film is not only slowly paced, but it takes place before we meet Jamie Bell’s Esca character, who dominates the film and is responsible for its success. Its not that Channing Tatum is a bad actor, its just that he brings absolutely no presence to the screen. Tatum belongs to that crop of young actors who have graduated from starring in pop-fluff shit like STEP UP, STEP UP 2: THE STREETS, and SHE’S THE MAN. Recognizing his movie star looks, Hollywood studios have turned Tatum into their latest attempt to create a Brad Pitt megastar. Unlike Pitt, however, Tatum has so far displayed no real acting talent. Here, he does a serviceable job as the Roman centurion, but playing such a role isn’t much of a stretch because all it requires the actor to do is look and act tough. Tatum has already played a similar role in 2009’s unwatchable G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA as Duke. On the other hand, in the hands of a skilled actor (oh, let me see, like Russell Crowe), this role could have stood shoulder to shoulder to Jamie Bell’s performance and the film would have been that much better. As it is, you will unfortunately have to slog through the first 30 minutes as you get introduced to Aquila and the film’s backstory.

THE EAGLE’s momentum really takes stride once we are introduced to Esca the slave. He doesn’t say much, but the resentment in his face toward his captors is written all over his face. This is the first time I have noticed him since his star-making performance in BILLY ELLIOT (2000) (apparently, he was also in KING KONG, but I don’t remember him in that film). We’ll be hearing a lot about Bell in the coming months as he’s set to appear in March’s JANE EYRE and to star in December’s THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Here, he gives a winning performance that completely overshadows the rest of the cast’s work. Its too bad that this film is not receiving enough critical and audience attention to make anyone notice his performance. The appeal of his character derives not only from Bell’s acting talents, but also from the story and filmmakers’ ability to keep the audience guessing as to the character’s ultimate loyalty. Esca understandably harbors a lot of resentment toward his captors and you feel sympathetic toward him for essentially being a stranger in a strange and hostile land. What’s more, although Aquila saves his life and accepts him as his slave, he’s sort of an asshole throughout the film and never once exhibits any sympathy or remorse for the slaughter of Esca’s family and tribe. All of this makes you connect with Esca far more than Aquila and consequently, much of the film’s momentum depends on his story.

One of the most outstanding aspects of THE EAGLE is the lush and painterly work done by its cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 28 DAYS LATER, 127 HOURS, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), who is quickly entering my top 10 cinematographers. He knows exactly how to portray the harsh and desolate environment of the Celtic-run areas of Northern Britain and the undiscovered wilderness that inhabited the entire island in that period. The film is chock full of pause-worthy moments that are good enough to frame on your wall. I’ve grown sick of the desaturated look that’s opted by most filmmakers these days so its quite refreshing to see someone splash his compositions with vibrant colors.

As mentioned earlier, THE EAGLE was adapted from a 1954 historical adventure novel, which explains the film’s old-fashioned adventure feel. These types of films have unfortunately become a rare breed in Hollywood. Many filmmakers today grew up on video games and the internet and their concept of pacing, filmmaking, and storytelling is much different than that of the older generation of filmmakers. I’m not implying that the older generation is a better one or that they made better movies. I grew up and developed an interest in film because by watching the old classics during my teenage years. Those films told stories in which the good guys and bad guys were clearly delineated and whose narratives followed a straighter, three-act structure. It’s a style I feel nostalgic for and which I would like to see a return of. Due to its source material, THE EAGLE has all of this. Its classic high adventure in the vein of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Two characters embark upon a dangerous journey in search of basically a treasure. During the course of that journey, the two characters form a close bond and battle through harsh physical elements and primitive tribes. THE EAGLE is not a perfect film by any means nor is it a great film, but its wildly entertaining to watch.

For those who measure the success of a swords & sandal adventure against Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR, THE EAGLE may end up disappointing you. This film doesn’t contain the bloody spectacle and emotional fanfare that Scott’s film did. THE EAGLE relies a lot more on mood and atmosphere to tell its story, which I think does a better job in placing the audience into the world of the story. THE EAGLE is a flawed success and it will never win any awards or make a big box office splash or even gain a cult status. It’s a film that may surprise you, especially if, like me, you were expecting it to completely suck.

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