Monday, February 14, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

You might recall back in November, I reviewed an independent film from Descent director Neil Marshall called Centurion. The film followed a band of lost Roman soldiers being chased from Pict tribes in what is now known as the Great Britain, the edge of the known world at the time. At the review's end, I predicted that the wide-release and extremely similar Hollywood film The Eagle, when it was to be released, would be nowhere close to the quality of Marshall's film, despite director Kevin Macdonald being a more renowned director (winning an Academy Award for his 2000 documentary One Day in September). The film not only takes places around the same time as Centurion, but also uses the fabled disappearance of Rome's Ninth Legion as its main plot device. In this, it is far from the first. In fact, the Lost Ninth has been the focus of many books and films, not the least of which is the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, on which the film I'm reviewing today is officially based.With the lack of viable film releases in recent weeks and harboring no desire to be depressed into next month (sorry, Biutiful, I'll get to you soon), I decided this last Saturday to take in the historically-inaccurate action film. I certainly did not expect much from The Eagle, but I was at least hoping it would surpass my limited expectations and make for an enjoyable if brainless activity.

Marcus's secret attack - The Smolder
The film begins with the arrival of Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) in Roman-occupied Britain approximately twenty years after the legion led by his father - you guessed it, the Ninth - disappeared in the wilderness of the north, never to be seen again. Since then, Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of what is known today as Hadrian's Wall, with the intent of keeping the barbaric tribes outside of Rome's control from attacking "civilized" folk. After serving briefly as a Roman Centurion, Marcus hears rumors of the lost legion's standard, a gold eagle statuette, seen north of the wall. Intent on recovering the symbol of Rome and restoring his family's honor, he heads into the unknown world with only the Scottish slave Esca (Jamie Bell) as escort. Together, they search for the item and honor, facing the dangers of Britain's northern lands every step of the way.

Yes, I'm stealing this line from Airplane: "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"
Kevin Macdonald made some interesting, perplexing decisions in making the film. The most obvious was his casting Americans as the conqueror Romans. Normally in film, when you have an over-lording empire, whether it be the Romans or the Sith, your average casting job in these instances calls for lots and lots of British actors. Besides the obvious talent pool you have from filming in Europe, it simply feels more authentic when your empire soldiers speak with a clipped British accent. I know that doesn't make a ton of sense, what with English not being even close to being a language at a time and Britain in fact not even being officially on the same LAND MASS as the city of Rome. But, for me at least, the British accent makes it feel more familiar and acceptable. American voices in comparison just sound so... UNREFINED. Even talented actors like those of Donald Sutherland (yes, I know he's Canadian) simply don't seem to belong in these roles, and they represent the upper echelon of acting talent. In an early scene basically spelling out the pretense of the film, Macdonald managed to secure some of the worst vocal talents this side of a Limp Bizkit concert to set up the film's tale. I mean... I GET IT. You use Americans to represent this country's history as a conquering nation, using Picts and Gauls to represent Native Americans. I can understand that just fine. What I can't forgive is the ham-handedness with which this was carried out, culminating in a first third of a film that just doesn't feel very well put together.

Yes, that will probably hurt
Another unfortunate decision was to make the film PG-13. There are numerous fights that occur through the course of the story, and if this had been a more ambitious film, it would have upped the blood and gore conspicuously absent from the film. It certainly didn't need to be as bloody as Centurion (which made a point of dismembering each representative limb at least TWICE during the length of the film) but the surprisingly bloodless battles and just-off-screen violence make The Eagle feel lifeless and dull in even these instances and practically begs for an "unrated" DVD release. There are some acts (including the murder of a small child) that would easily have knocked the film's rating up to R had it just been slightly more in the frame. This can only be seen as cowardice on the part of the filmmakers, perhaps worried that their film would not reach a prospective audience with an R rating.

What's hidden is that not one of them is wearing pants
As for historical accuracy, Macdonald had said he wanted to be as accurate as possible, but when you're dealing with a disputed legend and ancient tribes for which little is known, there's not a whole lot to work with. The best you can do is nail down the Romans, and for all intents and purposes, the director seems to at least pull that off. Of course, the only major detail they focus on - and of course they make SURE you notice it too - is the fact that the Roman helmet apparently left a distinctive (and convenient) welt under your chin. I guess I can't be too disappointed, since the film is based on a novel written for children, not any actual historical tale. Most historical analysts won't be paying much attention to this film anyway, I suspect.

Joey REALLY liked gladiator movies
The acting left a lot to be desired, though much can be attributed to a lazily-woven script rather than unambitious acting. I thought Tatum was actually much better here than than he had been in GI Joe, though any who remember that particular film know that's not saying much. At times his natural charm shines through, but at others he's still wooden and uninteresting. He's certainly got the looks to be a star; now he just needs his acting talents to rise to that same level. Jamie Bell suffers from the flaw of his first film role being the most memorable; he might likely never reach the level of success predicted for him after Billy Elliot made him an overnight sensation. Since that time he's mainly played supporting roles in big movies, and his future as a top-billed performer probably will be determined by how well his role is received in this year's Tintin movie. Still, he's the best part of this film, instilling heart into young Esca, with the audience never knowing for sure where the slave's loyalties lie. Donald Sutherland is as I have said a talented performer, but he has pretty much resorted to slumming it up in lesser films like this, chewing scenery long enough to get the story underway. I guess now that he has his official star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he feels he can stop doing the good jobs and just go for a paycheck. Well, I guess I can't blame him for that. Mark Strong (Seriously? Seems like he's in everything lately) appears as a tribesman who knows where the Eagle is, and does a fine enough job with it. And French actor Tahar Rahim puts forth a very convincing portrayal as another tribe's prince and the film's main antagonist. His performance is possibly the most consistent in the whole movie, with the only exception being Bell's.

Apparently gift horses come in all shapes and sizes
As I stated before, I didn't have high hopes for The Eagle going in. I hate to keep comparing it to Centurion, but when Neil Marshall takes the same topic and runs with it, it just comes out BETTER on all counts. The Eagle barely stands on its own feet however, and while you can plainly see Macdonald trying to make this scrap heap of broken parts into a piece of art, it too often reverts to overly-simplistic storytelling, marginally average acting, and a poorly-written story that doesn't make you care one whit about what's happening on the screen. And don't get me started on the positively stupid ending. I'm sure I'll see worse before year's end, but since I've only seen three 2011 films, The Eagle coming in at #4 just doesn't seem to do justice to how poor I though it turned out. With March looking like a packed house of interesting titles, I'm sure this film will be out of the Top 10 before too long, I'm just not sure how long I can wait for that.

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