Romans on a quest, yet grounded in camp
If you’re a big (or biggish) American city, you’ve probably housed — or still have — a bar called the Eagle. Eagles tend to be small and darkly lit. They tend to be gay. And, because the sport of men hunting for men in public has mostly shifted to the Internet, they tend to close in favor of bars where you can better (and more shamelessly) see the strangers staring at you.
Calling your bar the Eagle suggests you might aspire to evoke ideas of classical Roman manliness. For what it’s worth, there’s a new, nominal action movie that contains scenes dimly lit enough to drive one character to cry, “Damn the dark!’’ This movie is also called “The Eagle,’’ and while its stars — Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell — are one-fifth the age of the average Eagle-goer (sorry, fellas) and its setting is the second century AD, it puts you in an Eagle frame of mind.
Tatum plays a young centurion named Marcus Flavius Aquila. Aquila wants to avenge his father, a storied Roman leader, who was killed, along with his legion, as part of a heroic stand against Pict tribes in a region that we now call Britain. (Judging from the number of Romans speaking in watery English accents, the Empire appears to be on its last legs.) In any case, he leads a team beyond the relative safety of Hadrian’s Wall (a name begging for a nightclub) in pursuit of the vanquished legion’s gold eagle statue (typically called an aquila, but never mind).
To aid him, Aquila’s uncle (Donald Sutherland) buys his nephew a fit, young Brigantian slave named Esca (Bell). Aquila had already saved Esca’s life by begging that his fellow spectators raise their thumbs to spare him a gladiator’s bludgeoning. Esca claims to hate everything Aquila stands for (domination, conscription, toned arms, tight stomachs). In various fields of battle, they take turns rescuing and pledging commitment to each other. But Esca is a slave with the sort of royal surprise one finds in fairy tales and certain romances. “The Eagle’’ suffices as a title only because “Roman Holiday’’ was taken.
Otherwise, this is a dull, nearly womanless affair (the rest of the cast includes Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, and, in tribal body paint, Tahar Rahim) whose torch-lit sequences of hand-to-hand combat are unnavigably edited and calls to “muster the men’’ inspire giggles. The film hails from Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth.’’ Knowing that, it’s unfair to ask for a location, but, really: “Ninth and what?’’
The book was a children’s staple that imparted lessons of valor, which the film’s screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, and director, Kevin MacDonald, also hope to emphasize. MacDonald’s previous films include “The Last King of Scotland’’ (which Brock cowrote) and the Hollywood remake of the English miniseries “State of Play.’’ He might be better with lurid tales of mania and murder. This morally and ethically straight material might gay itself up, still it requires the urgency of a filmmaker who can keep you from noticing the lack of there here. MacDonald’s combat sequences look busy, and, through editing and good cinematography, move fast. But it’s hard to see what’s happening in the frame, which also makes it impossible to care.
Part of the trouble is casting. This is a movie that needs a great or gonzo performer to give it depth or heft. In Channing Tatum, it has an actor who gives it camp. That should be better than depth. But his action-figure carriage doesn’t inspire excitement or true desire. To see him stir shirtless from beneath an animal pelt is funny in the way that some Dolce and Gabbana ads are absurd. Bell continues his pursuit of an adult role that frees him from the prison of “Billy Elliot.’’ He works hard, but what he does here is entirely physical. His commitment is almost as campy as Tatum’s. But the movie imparts neither intentional nor accidental pleasure. It’s camp that can’t.
When someone shouts, “Put your weight on him, slave. Harder!,’’ I searched the scene in vain for Charles Nelson Reilly. We are now in a moment in which homoeroticism floats in the limbo between text and subtext. All signs point to gay. But we can read, and the characters don’t. Stephen Boyd as Messala in “Ben-Hur’’ provided classic subtext. Unbeknownst to Charlton Heston, he was playing a spurned lover. I find it hard to believe that the plot of “The Eagle’’ failed to amuse the cast and crew. It’s a bunch of men in hot pursuit of an antique.