We don't do the "family honor" thing so much anymore, I think.
In these modern times, if your dad robbed 12 liquor stores and three churches before betraying his best friend the President and speeding away in a car powered by burning flags, all you have to do to redeem yourself is not do any of that stuff.
At worst, someone gives you a hard time on Facebook, you denounce the old man, collect your "Likes," and move on.
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So if lost honor by itself is no longer as dramatic as it was back in the days when people hadn't invented clothes more advanced than barrels with straps, modern storytellers have to spice it up a little. For The Eagle, the bond between a soldier and his slave just kinda does the job.
Twenty years ago, Roman soldier Channing Tatum's father lost his life, his legion, and the Eagle battle standard of Rome in the wilds of Britain. As new commander of a remote Roman fortress, Tatum means to restore his honor through service--but his hopes are dashed when he's wounded in battle.
Some time later, Tatum hears rumor the Eagle has been seen in the tribes of the far north. To restore his family's honor, and with British slave Jamie Bell as his guide, Tatum heads into the lands that claimed his father.
As a leading man, Tatum is like a slice of kosher pickle that works out a lot. He is a little stiff and not so exciting, yet neither is he offensive as a presence. Sometimes I wish he were something else, yes, but I suppose it could be much worse. Joseph Gordon-Levitt can't star in everything.
At least his role in The Eagle lets him stretch his range a little. He's a highly honorable soldier with deep concern for the men under his command, which in my brain translates to "a boring boring boring with boring boredom," but writer Jeremy Brock smartly provides him with moments of anger and pettiness towards Bell, the slave whose life he saved from the gladiatorial arena.
The plot doesn't just race headlong for their trek into face-painting, stick-swinging, sheep-eating Scotland, either. It builds Tatum's life piece by piece, founding a sturdy characterization to keep us engaged once it comes time to venture past the wall and get into all kinds of dangerous googity-woo.
By which I mean highlands. And mossy rivers. And northern beaches that look as if they host the catfish who ate Braveheart (look it up). If nothing else, The Eagle's scenery is worth a couple bucks for itself.
But the seams start to show when Tatum and Bell close in on the answer to what happened to the lost legion. Here's what we know about Bell: he's a native, he's supposedly a man of his word, and he can take a real pounding from a gladiator. So when they fall into enemy hands, and he may or may not be selling Tatum out to Scottish barbarians, there just isn't a ton of drama present. Of course, if they simply talked to each other there wouldn't be any interpersonal drama at all, so instead they must conveniently play it so coy you'd think Bell was working up the nerve to invite Tatum to the ice cream social.
As a sign of how awesome a movie is likely to wind up, narrative manipulation like this is like tripping into a gutter and dropping your pastrami sandwich next to you. The sandwich will still taste good, but...the gutter.
Direction Kevin Macdonald doesn't do the shakycam too great, either. Still, The Eagle makes for a decent afternoon movie, a tale of honor, adventure, and travel beyond the known world -- it just doesn't deliver the emotional power it's shooting for.