Brothers, buddies, pals and duos have been the life blood of cinematic narrative from the Blues Brothers to Bad Boys. The bond made between two individuals in the name of a cause and in the face of disagreements is the thin but pivotal thread that sews many films together. The Eagle, based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, like so many adventures before it, places its weight on the four shoulders of two heroes, played by G.I. Joe’s Channing Tatum and once Billy Elliot, now Jumper Jamie Bell. Though they are from opposite sides of a conflict, they decide band together for a cause they deem worthy, and through that discover common ground. Though there’s a problem, and it’s not within the conflict. While the set pieces for companionship are certainly present, this empire has some serious construction problems.
Marcus Aquila has become a new leader to a Roman outpost in the newly conquered English territory. While there is certainly scepticism toward any new transfer of authority, his name comes with a couple of scoffs due to his father, who even he barely remembers, who is infamous for leading a massive army into the North and vanishing without a trace. With him, Marcus’ father also took the Eagle of the Ninth, a metal bird symbolizing Roman pride. Aquila does manage to prove himself to his new army, but not without sacrificing his health and being forced into an early retirement. Devastated that his one shot to restore his family name has been cut short, he gets the assistant of his new slave Esca, whom he spared from the gladiator’s pit, to guide him through the territories north of Hadrian’s Wall in search of the coveted idol.
There aren’t a lot of reasons for Aquila and Esca to get along. Aquila did give Esca another sunrise, but only to be rebranded as his slave, one who is treated like dirt by everyone but Aquila, for the moment anyways. To make things more uncomfortable, Esca was taken from one of the tribes responsible for the disappearance of the titular bird. So despite all that, and I really mean despite it all, the two agree, on a level that seems more significant than master and slave, to rescue the Eagle from the North by themselves. If this was a personal escapade — which you are left to assume it is because the Roman empire never asks Marcus to do it and generally treats the matter like that too-drunk evening they’d rather forget — then it would make sense that Esca would overlook the nobility of his homeland in order to find an object that only serves the nobility of his captors’. But this is something you are only left to assume through the process of thematic elimination, and you also have to assume that this is something Esca is also assuming because, well, Esca and Marcus never really seem to bond.
There’s a scene where they hunt a boar together, and they certainly do merc the little squealer with precision, but until even after their friendship is put to some lethal tests, the two don’t seem to significantly interact with other. No chemistry building conversations, no reminiscing, in fact there’s so much mutual stone-walling that it doesn’t seem any more powerful a relationship than someone you gave your seat to on the subway. Like I mentioned, their bond is put to some serious tests, and this comes off as severely weird when there is a recent surplus of memories with Aquila acting like a total asshole.
The struggle as a whole just doesn’t come off as very convincing, like the pride of Rome is so inspiring, that even the thought of its absence inspires its rivals to help restore it. It’s a big missed opportunity for Kevin Macdonald, who directed State of Play and The Last King of Scotland, he is capable of a lot more. The Eagle isn’t an action movie, and it ducks shy of being an epic, which isn’t a problem at all. The problem is how constantly it flinches towards trying to be one anyways. Some of the initial big battles feel a little wedged in, and what time they take subtracts from time that could have been used to make human connections between Esca and Aquila and between the audience and either of them. For an audience to feel the tension of a struggle, we have to at least find some common ground for the cause, but when we’re so consistently reminded that the empire is quite literally holier-than-thou, the goal is mostly frivolous and supposed friends seem to be so only in spite of their indifference, it’s very hard for empathy to take flight.