In the history of Western Civilization, few mysteries have sparked more debate than the one at the heart of "The Eagle" -- Kevin Macdonald's somber film adaptation of the classic children's novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. Nope, I'm not talking about the unexplained disappearance of the Ninth Spanish Legion of the Roman army, which hoofed into Britain in 117 A.D. and promptly vanished.
On my mind is Channing Tatum. Can he act, or not? I'm of the opinion that he can.
In "The Eagle," he looks altogether lost in the forbidding hills of north Britannia, where he plays a young centurion who searches the highlands for traces of his father's vanished legion.
Accompanying him is a slave played by Jamie Bell, an enigmatic northern tribesman with a gripe against the Romans. Together they meet other enigmatic northern tribesmen, one of them a chieftain's son portrayed by Tahar Rahim.
Bell speaks Gaelic with the Picts. He speaks English (substituting for Latin) with Tatum, who replies in kind, peppering his usual American drawl with random British inflections. They argue, grapple, eat raw squirrel. Every now and then someone gets decapitated, with PG-13 discretion. (It's a far cry from "Centurion," last year's half-witted and hard-R approach to the same subject.) Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is kinetic when it needs to be, ruminative and pretty when it doesn't. It looks good.
But Jeremy Brock's screenplay dawdles -- while Macdonald's direction is strangely pushy, insisting on an emotional depth that isn't really there. Through it all, Tatum tries like crazy to Act. His eyes pinch. His brow scrunches. Most of all, he clenches his jaw, little creases of muscle flexing below his ears as he labors to emote. It's a tic, much like Clooney's old fondness for head-bobbing, and he should dump it before it hurts his career.
He needs to learn something Bell never had to, because Bell sprang into movies as a fully formed youth in "Billy Elliot." Rahim never had to either, because he's one of those naturalistic actors who seem to be have been spat through the Earth's crust by plate tectonics. Tatum has to sit tight and stop the twitching, so the camera can do its job -- and his, too. The lens will act for him, if he lets it.
* Rating: PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images.
* Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
* Note: In English and Gaelic with English subtitles.
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