Channing Tatum ('Dear John,' 'G.I. Joe') stars in yet another motion picture attempting to pass off "scowling masculinity mixed with a gruff tenderness beneath it all" as a display of acting talent. Why anyone keeps offering him leading roles is beyond me. The guy can barely muster up a tear without looking like it is the most difficult and painful thing to do, let alone deliver dialogue in any meaningful or effective manner. He clearly demonstrates an ability to memorize his lines — he must be offered work for a reason, right? — but he's light-years away from being believable. Even in his best movies — of which, sadly, there aren't many — he plays smaller background characters where better and more bankable talent can carry a film.
And yet, here Tatum is taking top billing in 'The Eagle' as a young, street-tough guy with a serious chip on his shoulder. And he's also brimming with a surly manliness and confidence which not too surprisingly adds absolutely nothing to a plot set in 2nd Century Britain. Based on a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, which is itself loosely inspired by the legend of the Ninth Spanish Legion, Tatum plays Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, son of the man many believe responsible for the legion's mysterious disappearance. Recently discharged from duties due to a leg injury, the young soldier seizes on the prospect of redeeming his family's honor by traveling north of Hadrian's Wall, the edge of the known world according to the intertitles at the start of the film.
Half of the runtime is devoted to exposition, where it seems discussions place greater concern on the loss of the eagle standard than on learning more about the legion's fate. Brief scenes with Donald Sutherland ('Invasion of the Body Snatchers') and Denis O'Hare ('True Blood') also occupy some space. Of course, once Tatum sets off on his little adventure epic into the northern lands of Britain he discovers what became of his father and the soldiers via a scruffy, gone-native Mark Strong ('Sherlock Holmes,' 'Robin Hood'). Most of the story's entertainment value comes from Tatum's investigation slowly building up to a showdown with the tribes people in possession of the golden eagle. Too bad it takes nearly an hour to get to this point.
Joining Tatum on this quest through this unconquered territory we now call Scotland is Jaime Bell ('Billy Elliot,' 'Jumper'), who adds a bit more depth and weight to Tatum's usual wooden performance. As a slave to the Roman soldier and a Briton, Bell's Esca serves as guide and translator through the northern Gaelic-speaking wilderness, and it turns out he has some conflict of interest in this journey, seeing as he's the son of a Brigantes chieftain. It's all a bit too convenient when we put thought into it, but the device works decently enough by providing some much needed drama and tension between the two characters, pushing the narrative forward. Bell is also able to force some genuine acting, however minor and trivial, out of Tatum, which I suppose is a plus.
At its best, 'The Eagle' is a historical action-adventure flick reminiscent of classic sword-and-sandal features, though it doesn't always feel as grandiose and lofty. Director Kevin Macdonald, who has proven himself a competent filmmaker with political thrillers like 'The Last King of Scotland' and 'State of Play,', stays clear of the CGI special effects inundating so many movies today. He keeps the production brisk and fast-paced, delivering scenes of armored clashes with engaging action. Admittedly, it's not always very clear who's fighting who, but Macdonald does a great job at keeping viewers invested. And I suppose even Tatum does a decent enough job in his role, even though the rest of the cast easily surpasses his portrayal, making 'The Eagle' is an easy and sufficiently entertaining watch.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment unleashes 'The Eagle' onto a Region Free, BD50 disc containing both the theatrical and unrated cuts via seamless branch and a digital copy. Housed in the standard blue keepcase with a glossy slipcover that mirrors the cover art, the difference between the two versions are hugely negligible and change nothing in the overall runtime — only a couple scenes of graphic violence. At startup, viewers are greeted with the option for either cut before moving on the normal menu selection with full-motion clips and music.
'The Eagle' lands unto Blu-ray with a strong AVC-encoded transfer presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Though a generally satisfying presentation, with plenty of sharp definition, it also displays several notable scenes which are not up to par with what's expected from a new release. Details and texture are often very distinct, revealing facial pores, stitching in the garments and battle scars on the armor of Roman soldiers. Colors are animated and boldly rendered, especially in the primaries, giving the movie a vivid look.
Contrast is precise and comfortably bright, providing the picture with excellent clarity and visibility of Scotland. But there are times when highlights appear somewhat overblown, which tend to wash away the finer details. Some stylized photography is likely the culprit, but there are noticeable moments of softness, a bit of noise that suddenly creeps up, and crush that can ruin many poorly-lit sequences. Black levels also waver enough to the point of distracting, appearing inky one minute and dull the next which seriously flattens the image. Besides that, this low-budget adventure tale offers a mostly admirable video presentation.
On the audio side of things, 'The Eagle' makes a much better impression with a lively, action-packed DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Most of the attention is placed in the front where the center channel delivers clear, intelligible dialogue and the two other speakers exhibit excellent channel separation with convincing off-screen movement. The soundstage displays a great deal of warmth and fidelity that's engaging while the mid-range shows crystal-clear clarity, giving each clash of metal plenty of distinct detail. Rear activity is satisfying with the subtle ambient effects of nature in quieter moments and provides an immersive soundfield that's exciting during battle sequences. The real showstopper, however, is a powerfully authoritative low end that's unique with a commanding presence and response.
'The Eagle' arrives day-and-date as its DVD counterpart and both take equal share in the supplemental selection.
From director Kevin Macdonald, 'The Eagle' is an action-adventure feature following Channing Tatum and Jaime Bell in pursuit of Rome's eagle standard belonging to the legendary Ninth Legion. It's an intriguing tale kept exciting by Macdonald's direction and the beautiful photography of Scotland's highlands, but it ultimately falls short of its intended epic scale and showcases another dull portrayal from Tatum. The Blu-ray displays a great video transfer and excellent audio, but comes with a rather puny collection of supplements, making this a good package for those who enjoyed the film in theaters.