Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle, based on the children's book by Rosemary Sutcliff, which I may have read years ago, is not a movie for children. It should have been rated R or NC-17, and not PG-13 by the MPAA, which, in case you're still wondering or keeping score, doesn't care. Plot spoilers will follow.
Two children are murdered in the film, one in a particularly grisly way. Both of these murders are pointless and the blood and guts of the grisly one completely unjustified. It would be silly to be as upset by movie violence as by real violence. But I still found this rather unsettling. I mean why do it. I mean don't do it. Okay, if you must do it, make it mean something!
The grisly murder is supposed to illustrate the master/slave relationship of total demanded obedience between Esca (Jamie Bell), a Briton saved from death-by-gladiator by his master Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing "Grimace" Tatum), a Roman centurion whose single obsession in life is to retrieve the gold eagle standard of the lost Ninth Batallion, led by his Roman centurion father, which disappeared twenty years earlier entering the Pictish wilds of Northern Britain.
Esca hesitates in killing this child, the last warrior to attack himself and Aquila, and the child runs away. Aquila takes him down with a quick thrown weapon and reproofs Esca's hesitation.
I have no problem with movie characters being evil or bloodthirsty. Indeed, the occupied Britons and conquering Romans are at war, and Esca and Aquila are in a precarious position wandering fairly unprotected through "uncivilized" lands. Allowing the child to escape and perhaps warn comrades might well have brought down a quick death on the two. Still, I found the way it is portrayed over the top and, like a lot of things in this movie, confused to the point of troubling.
The Eagle comes to specialize in raising numerous interesting, possibly powerful issues, and completely failing to grapple with them in any kind of way that could be even confused for successful. Honor in battle, personal debts, slavery, dedication to family and country, etc. are all brought up and dumped on top of this action movie. I don't need to be told exactly what to think about a work of art, but I also don't want to sit through a movie that's two hours of some people yelling, "We don't think good!" And then there's the gay subtext.
Nowadays, if you would like to make a movie about gay characters, you can. There is no need for subtle Spartacus-like hinting or quibbling. If you don't want the movie to be about gay characters, you can leave out the gay subtext. You can even use a gay subtext to say something else, if you're not going to put the issue at the fore, like, say, perhaps, in Reservoir Dogs. The Eagle puts all the possibly-gay stuff--and there's lots of it--in subtext, for no reason I can conceive. Some may say I'm writing it in because these are two attractive young actors whose characters bond in an unusual, perhaps historically accurate way which is not gay or straight. Again, that would be fine if there were some point like that which was made within the movie. I think there is not. These are two seemingly gay characters who are not allowed to cuddle, and that is sad. If that's the point of the movie, why would it be? Does that message need this context? Ugh. It reminded me of Se7en, in that all the scenes and camera moves lead you up to a point in the story which is utterly predictable, but justified, and even after a certain point necessary to the story. Then you never see it happen.
Each line in Tatum's script must have included the parenthetical direction to grimace, or else the director was yelling "Grimace!" all day during shooting. Oddly, this makes Tatum's character the most sympathetic to its victims in the audience. I felt you there, Tatum. Bell does a pretty admirable job of creating a real character despite the script's clear shortcomings. (Tip for Tatum: Bell accomplishes acting with his face.) There actually are a few good lines which sum up what the relationship must be between Esca and Aquila, but these lines feel excavated from a trash dump. One wants to wash them off before sharing their discovery with anyone. I have titled the ending scene "Dote-dee-doe," and I give my permission for this to be used on the DVD.
The action is okay, the acting is okay, except for Tatum's, which is awful. And his is the main character. The depiction of the Pictish people is fascinating in places if ultimately muddled and wasted. Please avoid The Eagle, and tell your friends, if you like them.
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