In the invigorating, cool-toned, action-filled Roman historical adventure The Eagle, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a valiant soldier of the Roman Empire circa a.d. 140. Esca (Jamie Bell) is Marcus’ slave, a young Briton whom Marcus saved from death. The two men are enemies. Esca hates Marcus for the invasive, militaristic empire he represents. Yet there they are, dependent on each other, traipsing over the highlands of Caledonia — that’s present-day Scotland — north of Hadrian’s Wall, looking for a Roman emblem known as the Eagle of the Ninth.
Millions who have read Rosemary Sutcliff’s ripping 1954 historical novel named after that eagle already know the stakes. Anyone else ready for rugged action involving swords, sandals, designated savages, and bonding between political adversaries is bound to fall in happily with the mood of this handsome, lean production. The story and setting may be ancient, but under the direction of Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), and with a nicely textured screenplay by Macdonald’s Scotland coscreenwriter Jeremy Brock, the vigor is fully modern. The director’s documentary background informs his almost reportorial attention to landscape, fighting technique, and especially the wild, fascinating otherness of the peoples beyond the reach of Rome. The characteristically rich grain of the (often handheld) cinematography by Slumdog Millionaire’s Anthony Dod Mantle adds to the you-are-there feeling.
By the way: That’s Tahar Rahim, star of last year’s A Prophet, unrecognizable in body paint as the Seal Prince. Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable, even togaed up as Marcus’ uncle Aquila. B+