In 140 AD, Marcus (Tatum) arrives in Britain, the far end of the Roman Empire, where he's charged with fending off local insurgents. But he has a secret agenda: to reclaim the golden eagle of the missing ninth legion, which was led by his father. As he recovers from a battle injury, his uncle (Sutherland) buys him feisty slave Esca (Bell). And then when they hear rumours about the eagle's whereabouts, Marcus and Esca set off to Caledonia to retrieve it. And when they meet a savage Seal prince (Rahim), Esca must become the master.
Unsurprisingly, Macdonald films the scenery (of Scotland and Hungary) spectacularly, with Anthony Dod Mantle's visceral camerawork positioning the characters against staggeringly beautiful landscapes. And while Brock's script is packed with speeches about honour and duty, it's the relationship between Marcus and Esca that grabs hold, perhaps because it's played with muscular gusto by Tatum and Bell as two men with daddy issues who essentially fall in love. The film could have been titled Brotherhood of the Skirt.
In this essentially female-free movie, it's all about manliness, with lots of glowering and physique flexing, plus a bit of wild overacting from time to time. Although any gay subtext is of course quickly averted by the next battle sequence or clunky plot element. There's an attempt to add some complexity to the Seals, Britons and Romans, as all are guilty of brutality, although the script carefully drops in something that lets us know who to root for in each scene.
As it goes along, questions about the nature of barbarism and the cruelty of conquest are sidelined for more Hollywood-style priorities like cool make-up and costumes, grisly violence (that pushes the PG-13 barrier), daring feats of bravery and loyalty, and surging emotional sappiness. But through all of this, it's the growing connection between these two men (and the superbly physical and resonant actors who play them) that makes the movie impossible to dislike.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th February 2011
Box Office USA: $19.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $39M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Focus Features, Film4, Toledo Productions, Twins Financing
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 39%
Fresh: 57 Rotten: 91
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producer: Duncan Kenworthy
Screenwriter: Jeremy Brock
Starring: Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila, Mark Strong as Guern, Jamie Bell as Esca, Donald Sutherland as Aquila, Denis O'Hare as Lotorius, Tahar Rahim as Seal Prince, Dakin Matthews as Claudius Marcellus, Douglas Henshall as Cradoc, Paul Ritter as Galba, Pip Carter as Servius Placidus, Ned Dennehy as Seal Chief / The Horned One, István Göz as Cohort Centurion, Bence Gerö as Celt Boy / Young Marcus, Zsolt László as Paulus, Julian Lewis Jones as Cassius
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