The Eagle (Three Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Kevin Macdonald, 2011
The Eagle is one of the more enjoyable adventure movies I‘ve seen recently. Set in the wilds of Old Britain in the second century , it’s an old-fashioned, well-crafted, eiting movie, adapted by director Kevin Macdonald and writer Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff‘s famous young adult novel “The Eagle of the Ninth.” It’s full of action, emotion, personality and eye-catching scenery — just the kind of things we want in an adventure movie, whether it’s a Western, a tall ship tale, a swashbuckler, or, like this one, a sword-and-sandals Roman empire epic, in the Spartacus-Gladiator tradition.
Macdonald‘s movie also boasts a couple of heroes that actually engage your attention and sympathy (or at least mine): tormented Roman ex-General Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum), and his plucky British slave, Esca (played by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot).
Tatum‘s Marcus is a noble warrior and a photogenic brooder, retired from command in his youth after a nasty battle with the Picts, and he ‘s obsessed with solving the mystery (a real historical one) of the Roman Ninth Legion, which was defeated by British tribes and vanished in Caledonia (now Scotland) in 140 a.d. Incidentally, he also wants to clear the name of his late father, the Ninth’s commander, as well as to recover the golden eagle that was the Ninth’s standard.
Aquila’s slave Esca, irreverent and indomitable despite his slight stature, owes his life to his master, who saved him from thumbs-down death at the hands of a gladiator in the Games, and now wants Esca to accompany him on his journey into the dangerous northern land above Hadrian‘s Wall — then so forbidding that the wall was called the End of the World.
It’s a volatile situation. Esca is a native Briton, unafraid and defiant, who didn’t flinch or move when a gladiator laid his sword on his skin in the arena. And we keep wondering throughout much of the movie, which side he’ll ultimately choose: that of the man who was so impressed by his courage and who rescued him, or that of the people of his blood and birth, still fighting the Roman armies and leaders who want to enslave them all.
United uneasily, these two plunge into the wilderness above the wall, the habitat of fierce tribes, and deadly warriors, and perhaps of the descendants of the legion that disappeared — an uncharted realm of glowering skies, craggy mountains, rushing rivers, forests and caves that swallow you up (all shot with ravishing detail and bleak grandeur by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, of 127 Hours) , along with villages and camps seething with dangerous combatants — like the blue-pained Seal People, led by the ferocious Seal Prince (played by Tahar Rahim of the rough, bloody French prison movie A Prophet).
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a nearly irresistible premise for a movie. Just watching those two volatile searchers riding off together into the unknown got the adventure-loving kid in me all revved up again. In some ways The Eagle is formula-bound and exaggerated and even, from some perspectives, a little silly. But it’s not the kind of formula that annoys me. I enjoyed the results much more than I did the recent Centurion, which was also inspired by the disappearance of the Ninth — but was played with surpassing grimness, grotesquerie and deadening brutality, like a period horror movie.
The Eagle is more reminiscent of the classic quest movies, like John Ford‘s The Searchers, of course, with John Wayne as Ethan (“That’ll be the day!”) and Jeffrey Hunter‘s Marty, pursuing the Comanche tribe that killed Ethan’s family, slaughtered his secret love and abducted her daughter. Or Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73, with Jimmy Stewart chasing his beloved rifle, or Howard Hawks’s Red River, with Wayne pursuing his cattle and Monty Clift. Or Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Or Henry Hathaway’s 1969 True Grit with Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn after a killer and bounty money (and the superb recent Coen Brothers/Jeff Bridges remake). Or Hathaway’s underrated Nevada Smith, with Steve McQueen relentlessly on the trail of the bandits who raped and murdered his mother.
Those are all classic, near-classic or “instant classic” Westerns, and The Eagle, superficially part of the genre that includes Spartacus and 300, is reminiscent of them all. With its gorgeous landscapes, bounteous dangers and its embittered, driven heroes or protagonists yoked together in wary admiration, The Eagle often looks and feels like a Western, albeit one of the revisionist oaters of the late ‘6os and ’70s, the Peckinpah-Leone-Eastwood-Penn-Altman period.
And it’s a male bonding movie as well (as are most of the movies above, especially Spartacus): one that mines occasional high drama out of the social differences, clashing temoperaments and ambiguous bonds between Tatum and Bell, both of whom contribute performances above the norm for this kind of movie. (So does Rahim, and so does Donald Sutherland, enjoying himself mightily as Marcus’ worldy-wise, libertine-looking Uncle Aquila (but surrounded by a much better movie than he was in The Mechanic.)
Tatum has been indicted in some quarters for excessive hunkishness, but he strikes me as a good actor for this kind of adventure movie, someone who blends the wayward charisma and short fuse of a younger Russell Crowe with the photogenic toughness of a young Mel Gibson. It’s Bell though, who really makes the movie work, largely because he’s playing so well against expectations, because he doesn’t initially look as if he belonged in an adventure movie, and because he supplies the intelligence and sensibility and depth that makes the twosome and their interchanges connect and crackle.
It’s not surprising that The Eagle was based on both fact (embellished by imagination) and on a novel for young adults. The movie has a foundation in actual history, but it also has the crowd-pleasing, wish-fulfillment elements that we maybe love best in youth — or in old age or temporarily recovered youth.
But neither is it a surprise that The Eagle plays so well on screen as a genuine adult genre movie (albeit one that brighter kids should like too). The picture is at least somewhat plausible historically, and it has strong characters caught in real dilemmas, with dramatic moral consequences.
Tellingly, and despite the fact that The Eagle comes from a novel written by a woman, it also lacks big female roles, or the usual trumped-up big-movie romance. There are no implausibly shampooed or mascaraed heroines popping up, indeed hardly any women at all. The movie could have used a rough, rowdy, witchy Brit or even a few Roman concubines and an amoral queen or two, but that might have been inappropriate for a young adult novel. (One suspects Sutcliff felt no need to supply any eroticism for her younger audience, or to charge up or even acknowledge the sublimated romance between Marcus and Esca.)
And though the action scenes are mostly good rather than great, they’re not annoyingly artificial and over-scaled, or full of visual bombast, like the ones in 300. Real humans with real swords (or maybe real fake ones anyway), thrash and slash at each other on real landscapes, and it reminds us how jarring and alienating CGI, and its phony compuetrized landscapes crammed with phony computerized people, can often be.
The dramatic scenes are what make the movie special. They often bristle with tension and emotion, especially when Marcus and Esca have to switch roles to keep from being killed as invaders — Esca playing the British master, Marcus the captive Roman slave. At the end, when there’s a great chase on, and horses are dying under their riders, I defy any adventure-loving kid or kid-at-heart, not to get caught up in the excitement.
Kevin Macdonald may be exactly the right kind of director for this sort of intelligent adventure movie. His The Last King of Scotland was very strong in its portrayal of a real-life villain and a twisted warrior mentality (Forest Whitaker’s bloody, mad Idi Amin) and his observer (James McAvoy as Amin’s wary Scottish physician). And Macdonald’s mountain-climbing documentary/recreation Touching the Void has more rousing, real adventure and breath-catching action than most fictional actional movies of the same period. In the truly thrilling “Void,” Macdonald and his fellow filmmakers (including Mantle) give us drama that’s moving and convincing, and adventure that’s mythic.
Macdonald is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell’s partner on the Archers films, including terrific war-adventure movies like The 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Pursuit of the Graf Spee. Like his brilliant grandpa, he‘s a sophisticated yarn-spinner who still has a relish for the youthful, unspoiled magic and grand thrills we tend to treasure in the first movies we love.
That’s what the best of The Eagle gives us. As a twelve year old, I know I would have liked it, maybe loved it. And that twelve-year-old is still somewhere inside me as I watch it now, applauding and yearning for a swift horse, the wild frontier and the beautiful, stormy territory ahead.
Gnomeo and Juliet (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Kelly Asbury, 2011
This movie seems to have a totally crazy idea — a musical animated feature riff on William Shakespeare‘s unbeatable Romeo and Juliet, with two sets of feuding lawn ornaments (mostly gnomes, but also a green plastic frog, and a pink plastic flamingo) battling and cussing out each other on the lawns of two feuding next-door neighbors: Juliet’s Reds (on a lawn owned by Richard Wilson’s Mr. Capulet) and Romeo’s Blues (owned by Julie Walters as Miss Montague).
But, dopey as it sounds, it’s more entertaining than you’d expect. I haven’t seen a better Shakespearean gnome romantic musical comedy ever. (Then again, I haven’t seen a worse one.)
The live gnomes, wearing conical red and blue hats (perhaps to indicate political persuasion), are led by their lawn ornament rulers Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith). There’s a Tybalt (a hard-case gnome voiced well by Jason Statham), a Benvolio (Matt Lucas as “Benny“ of Benny and the Jets), a nurse (Ashley Jensen as the plastic frog Nanette), a friar (Jim Cummings as an out-of-sight pink flamingo named Featherstone). Ozzie Osbourne and Dolly Parton supply the voices for (I kid you not) a Fawn and a busty bombshell called Dolly Gnome. Hulk Hogan voices the main non-Tybalt heavy: a psychotic lawnmower called Terrafirminator. And Bill Shakespeare, or at least his statue, appears, sounding just like Patrick Stewart.
Meanwhile Gnomeo (James McAvoy) proves to be a sturdy little scamp with a roguish fringe of beard, and gnome-sweet-gnome Juliet (Emily Blunt) is an adventurous lass in a Dutch Girl outfit. They’re pretty cute together, but the show is totally stolen by the lesser known Jensen and Cummings, as that weirdly flirtatious frog-nurse and that Peter Sellers-ish bizarrely accented flamingo.
I never thought I’d say it, but Michael Caine and Maggie Smith make pretty good lawn ornaments. Kelly Asbury (co-director of Shrek 2) directed; plenty of people worked on the script. (And it shows it.) One of the movie’s main attractions is the song score by Elton John (who has family connections here), mostly a greatest hits assemblage that includes “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” and the seemingly inevitable “Your Song.”
I like John’s songs, they work amazingly well in cartoons, and it’s fun to hear them here, even socked across by swinging lawn ornaments (voiced mostly by John).
But I wish they’d dreamed up some plausible reason, such as an invasion of Elton-Gnomes, to explain why the songs keep suddenly coming on. Then again, as far as gnome movies go (if not Shakespearean adaptations), this one is, uh, fairly well-motivated.