Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle Of The Ninth, the story charts the arrival of young centurion Marcus Aquila (Tatum) in Britain in 140 AD. He is determined to salvage the reputation of his father, who disappeared alongside the Romans' entire Ninth Legion while commanding them on a mission in the Scottish mountain. With the help of indigenous slave Esca (Bell), whom he saved from execution, Marcus embarks on a largely dull mission beyond Hadrian's Wall to retrieve the iconic golden eagle emblem from the lost legion and discover the fate of his father. However, how much can he trust Esca - given the lad's sworn hatred of the Roman invaders?
Herein lies the main problem - the relationship between the dogged Marcus and his sneaky slave. Too many unanswered questions permeate their actions. Why did Marcus spare this particular random stranger from imminent death at the hands of a fellow Roman? One can speculate that there's a homoerotic angle involved, but the movie seems to shy away from pursuing that intriguing slant. Similarly, the double and triple crossing antics that Esca deploys as his character unravels only lead to sustained headscratching instead of heightened drama. The screenplay desperately tries to keep us guessing about his true loyalties, but ultimately it's a frustrating and unrewarding experience. There are also far too many plot contrivances designed purely to keep Tatum's lead from perishing despite repeated occasions when he should be dragging his chiselled demeanour off to the afterlife.
Aesthetically, Macdonald sporadically impresses with several gritty and atmospheric sequences set at night or in the fog. A palpable tension can certainly be felt when the Romans suspect an attack on their settlement under the cloak of darkness and strain their ears to hear any movement nearby. The actors contend with the flawed script well and one can't fault Tatum (sounding very American for a Roman!) or Bell for the dubious characterisation. The pair manage to wring every bit of empathy possible from their roles. It's pleasing to see Donald Sutherland enjoy significantly more screen time here than he managed in The Mechanic, with his mere presence as Marcus' uncle adding gravitas to every scene he appears in. Sadly though, the excellent Mark Strong is wasted in a duff one-dimensional role of a former legionnaire found by Marcus on his travels.
It's one thing to ask the audience to suspend their disbelief in response to the transatlantic accents that waft through the Roman camp. That's acceptable. But it's too much of a stretch to expect viewers to simply accept a series of credulity-defying behaviour from the protagonists. At the heart of The Eagle is a nice idea, but one that needed some smart writing to give it wings.