An enjoyable but ultimately frustrating tale which falls short of the high standards it sets itself. The plot is a classic adventure yarn, and the setting, in the Scottish Highlands is spectacular. Director Kevid McDonald, whose credits include “Touching the Void” knows how to use a landscape to dramatic effect. But somewhere along the way the screen play fails to join up the dots, so although there are a number of very good set pieces the whole fails to satisfy. The American speaking actors are the invaders, the British the locals, whether this is supposed to have any wider geo-political significance, I don’t know.
Fundamentally an adventure story the plot unfolds in highly episodic form. The opening is outstanding. A remote Roman outpost receives a rookie new commanding officer, Marcus Aquila, played by Channing Tatum, haunted by his father’s disappearance as commander of the 9th Legion and determined to learn of his fate. The garrison initially regard him with suspicion , distrust and as a bad omen. Yet he wins them over in leading the defence of the fort against a local uprising in by far the best scene of the movie. It is the classic “cowboys and Indians defence of the fort” scene. But from this promising start, the energy levels drop.
A gladiatorial combat scene then follows with the purpose of introducing a native slave, Esca, played by Jamie Bell, whose life he saves from death, and who is thus indebted to him. Oddly, so concerned is McDonald with using this as a plot device that the considerable dramatic potential of the amphitheatre is largely wasted.
Esca then becomes Aquila’s scout, as well as guide, as he resolves to venture past Hadrian’s Wall to find out what fate befell his father and Legion and recover their standard the eponymous “Eagle”. This quest seeking 20 year old news is the least satisfactory section. They survive an ambush and wander around a lot, and that is about it. The intrigue as to whether Esca is being true in his interpreting with the locals is all that keeps things going. The dynamic of the relationship between Esca and Aquila beyond the debt of honour lies unexplained. McDonald with “State of Play” and “last King of Scotland” has shown himself to be very adept at displaying relationships on screen, but the unevenness in the characterisation of Aquila and Esca prevent that success here.
After stumbling on a naturalised Legionaire survivor, the two of them are taken to the tribal Seal camp for the second high spot of the film. Esca’s loyalty is brought further into doubt, the Eagle is revealed and Esc and Aquila escape with it. The camp, a coming of age warrior ceremony, the theft and escape, are brilliantly realised. But for the final act it all becomes a bit of a mish-mash.
Two men in the wilderness escaping from an entire village is only likely to have one outcome, and although wonderfully photographed it lacks dramatic tension. To compensate for this we have a truly preposterous climax. Esca miraculously rounds up a dozen or so hitherto unknown 9th legion survivors, all anxious to put right the dishonour of their original defeat, all of whom look 40 plus, who then proceed to wipe out the entire warrior population of the chasing village. Although several of the themes echo Michael Mann’s classic version of “Last of the Mohicans” it fails to scale those heights.
Aquila returns triumphant, his father’s honour is restored and he slave Esca is set free. If that all sounds a bit twee it is because it is. The authentic Gaelic style music, becomes a bit grating after a while with lots of “Clannad” style female warbling and wailing. Furthermore the dynamic of the story is lopsided as Jamie Bell in a supporting role has a far more nuanced character to play than Channing who has to look pretty, tough and worry about his father’s reputation. The British/ Seal natives also speak in a subtitled dialect resulting in the characterisation of the “enemy” being limited, so the good versus evil dynamic is given little space to breathe. This is compounded by the problem that the natural sympathy of a neutral observer to a tale of invader seeking to subjugate a local populace is with the native population, not the invader. Yet Aquila is the hero. The scenes with indeterminate Roman officials ( amongst them Donald Sutherland) are uniformly embarrassing and superfluous.
In conclusion, worth seeing, but it fails to meet the standards it aspires to, and should have achieved