Channing Tatum, right, stars as a young Roman soldier who journeys to the… (Matt Nettheim / Focus Features )
It's jarring, at first, to hear Romans speak with American accents in "The Eagle." But that sly twist on sword-and-sandals convention makes perfect sense, lending a 21st century perspective on empire to this 2nd century drama. If only more of the film felt as fresh.
Director Kevin Macdonald, who has explored extreme personalities in such memorable work as "One Day in September," "Touching the Void" and "The Last King of Scotland," hews so faithfully to genre storytelling in his new feature that it often feels like a missed opportunity.
The script by Jeremy Brock, based on "The Eagle of the Ninth," a 1954 young-adult novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, plays it straight down the middle, neither pushing its contemporary vantage point nor embracing the chance for B-movie glory.
The few bashful winks belong to Donald Sutherland's brief scenes and the closing moment. Otherwise, the historical saga rolls out an earnest, by-the-numbers narrative about honor and, of course, fathers and sons — women are relegated to the background — but with a strong sense of place that's unusual for such swashbucklers.
The Britain-set film was shot in Hungary and Macdonald's native Scotland by Anthony Dod Mantle, whose widescreen camerawork captures the sweep of a wild terrain, even while the swordplay feels like so much ho-hum thrashing.
At the heart of the action, and where it comes alive, intermittently, is in the master-and-slave relationship between Roman soldier Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) and Esca (Jamie Bell), a Briton who's the most compelling character, even while delivering lines such as "My father's dagger is my bond."
Although he hates Marcus and all occupying Romans on principle, the slave swears to stand by him after Marcus saves his life during gladiator games — in which even little kids get into the spirit of condemning losers to death.
The blend of pride and shame that fuels many a hero drives the rule-bound Marcus, a middling rooting interest. His father led the Ninth Legion into a Caledonian debacle, in which a cherished avian emblem ("The Eagle is Rome!") was lost, along with a few thousand men.
Unwilling to sit "rotting and remembering" — a dig at his uncle (Sutherland) that provokes only a well-fed chuckle — Marcus heads into the untamed northern country to find the Eagle and redeem the family name, Esca his reluctant guide.
Amid mostly predictable dynamics, Bell's inscrutability ups the tension, and Tahar Rahim, electrifying in "Un Prophète," makes a formidable, Rome-hating Seal Prince. "The Eagle" places his tribal rituals and the Romans' military might on the same spectrum of savagery.
If this episodic quest still manages to feel too flat and mild, at least it gives us the mysterious Highlands and the Celtic dirge of Atli Örvarsson's outstanding score.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release