Dueling Centurions: The Conclusion

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After much anticipation…seriously, what seemed like years of anticipation, and in fact, the first post I did about it was 24 August 2009, I finally saw The Eagle (of the Ninth).

Meh.

I wish I could leave it there. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else still planning to see it and everyone should be allowed to make their own judgments, but I need to get this out and move on.

I’m disappointed on a number of levels, not the least of which is the amount of screen time given to Mark Strong. When production began on the film and details started to be released, it was revealed that Strong would be a ‘good guy’, in and of itself enough to cause a flutter of excitement given his recent spate of villains. But by the time he actually shows up in this film, I had forgotten he was in it. He has one good scene, albeit with an American accent, and then disappears. (I’ll say no more on that score.) All I can think is “what a waste”. 

Seriously, why cast an actor of Strong’s caliber if you aren’t going to give him anything to do? (Sorry, climbing out of the mist looking menacing is not enough.) Director Kevin Macdonald might as well have cast Dimitar Berbatov*. I have to wonder if the rest of Guern (Strong’s character) didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, along with the rest of the source material’s title.

Another actor I was looking forward to seeing was Douglas Henshall. I completely forgot about him until I saw the credits. Where the hell was he? Supposedly he was someone called “Cradoc”, but I’ll be damned if I know what that was and I certainly didn’t recognize him. (Oh well, I’ll have to wait for dvd to find him, since I’m not spending another $11.50 to do it.)

I still don’t get Channing Tatum’s appeal. I do realize that I’m not his target audience, which seems to consist of the teenage girls who swooned over him in GI Joe and Dear John, and who will no doubt be the core group of The Eagle’s ticket buyers. He’s not the worst actor I’ve ever had to endure, he’s just kind of…meh. What’s worse, is that he brought down Jamie Bell, who is a good actor, to his level. (And was it just me or were their matching ears a little disconcerting?)

Okay, now that I’ve gotten all of that bitching out of my system, I can, hopefully, discuss the film in a somewhat intelligent manner.

In the context of comparing the two recent films dealing with the infamous “lost legion” of the Roman army in ancient Britain, there is, JMHO, no comparison.

Both films take place in 2nd century Britain, north of Hadrian’s Wall in what is now Scotland. Both films make great use of the natural landscape and have moments of stunningly beautiful cinematography.  While Centurion managed to make sweeping vistas of the snow covered highlands breathtaking, The Eagle made the country look exceedingly stark and harsh. One thing, though, that I do not understand, is the propensity of film-makers to make one of the most gorgeous places on earth (Scotland)  seem so bleak, like it exists in perpetual winter. 

Both are tales of natives vs invaders, much like American cowboys and Indians westerns. In Centurion, the invaders were the underdogs trapped behind enemy lines, ostensibly trying to rescue their captured leader, but who ultimately just wanted to get out and get home.  In The Eagle, the invaders purposefully crossed over into enemy territory, this time to get back a captured symbol of not just leadership, but the superiority of Rome and her army. Again, the tension supposedly supplied by the question of whether they would make it back alive.

Herein lies the rub. In both cases we are asked to root for the Romans as “the good guys” and care about their mission and their survival, just as we do for the cowboys. The difference is that I did buy into that in Centurion, I did not in The Eagle. I didn’t feel any of it. I blame most of that on the lead’s lack of charisma (probably not fair to compare him with Michael Fassbender in this or any context) and his seeming inability to generate empathy, not to mention the fact that I did not perceive any chemistry between Tatum’s Marcus Aquila and Jamie Bell’s Esca. Unfortunately, the entire movie hangs upon this relationship.

By trying to tell the story of what may have happened to the lost Eagle of the 9th Legion while at the same time creating a ‘buddy’ picture, director Kevin Macdonald fails to do justice to either one.  We’re meant to believe that Esca would feel so honor bound by one simple act on the part 0f Marcus that he would forget about not only all of the atrocities and horrors committed on his people as a whole, but his own family in particular.  I didn’t buy it for a second and could see no reason why Bell’s character wouldn’t kill Tatum’s in his sleep and wear his skull for a hat.

And without revealing too much, I just have to say that that “21st century bromance” ending would have jerked me out of the moment…had I been in it in the first place.

In fact, the only characters I did believe were Donald Sutherland’s Aquila, Ned Dennehy’s Seal Chief and Tahar Rahim’s Seal Prince. The latter was able to do more in his few scenes, with just his dark eyes burning out of his mud covered face, than Tatum did with an entire movie revolving around his finely chiseled features.

Centurion was a naturalistic hard R, while The Eagle was like a bloodless Howard Hawks western that worked hard at maintaining its PG-13. Somewhat understandable given the target audience of the source material and the one the makers were hoping to cultivate with the film, but basically it boils down to how much fun I had watching Centurion and how badly I just wanted The Eagle to be over.

Meh. JMHO

(out of 5)

*Mark Strong is often said to resemble either actor Andy Garcia or Manchester United forward Dimitar Berbatov

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