Remember the Oscar-winning Spartacus (1960) or Gladiator (2000). Unfortuantely, this film doesn't have the deft and dexterity in writing and acting as those movies, but, after the recent remake of Clash of the Titans (2010) left a really bad taste in my mouth, I must admit that this was a quite enjoyable and entertaining if only a slight, swords-and-sandal epic.
Channing Tatum (Step Up) stars as Marcus Aquila, a Roman commander in the second century who arrives in Britain to take control of a fort. His father was also a Roman commander who famously fought a battle that saw 5,000 Roman soldiers lost as well as a prized golden statue in the shape of an eagle taken. Despite the doubts of the men in the fort, Marcus comes here to vindicate his family's name.
When it becomes apparent that the only way that he can do that is by finding the eagle statue, Marcus sets out on a journey to search for it. He takes with him a British slave named Esca, played by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot). They venture by horseback north to Hadrian's Wall, which is the Roman borderline in England. Beyond the wall is pure British land, which the Romans believe is too dangerous for them.
It's not as if there aren't British people within Roman territory, but the forts and battlements are solid protection. Past Hadrian's Wall, there is no protection like that. Regardless, Marcus and Esca go it all alone. They go into the area where Marcus' father lost the eagle.
It's interesting, but the British people are portrayed as savages and as wild tribal people, not that much better than animals. Clearly, in the beginning, director Kevin MacDonald wants to portray the British tribes as bad guys. Yet, all the time that I was watching this film, I couldn't help but think that maybe it's the Romans who are the bad guys. After all, the Romans were the ones who invaded and conquered Britain for the own selfish reasons. It's not as if they came in peace to share goods and services. The Romans were imperialists.
Esca who was a slave under the Roman empire makes this case once he goes out into the field with Marcus. Despite that, Esca helps Marcus. The two become friends and even realize that they're not that much different from one another. So much is built up about how the Romans and the British hate each other, of how they're enemies, of how each side thinks the other are savages and evil, but the point should be what Marcus and Esca learn about each other along the way and how it ultimately brings them together.
These are of course all things that I inferred. The screenplay by Jeremy Brock could have weaved these ideas together a little better or made them more clear. Unless, he really wanted to make a movie about two guys who bring back a very symbolic but also quite meaningless golden statue. Yes, it's also about honor, pride and victory and etc., but all of that has been done before.
The brutality and the violence of this film gets to be a little extreme. It needlessly makes things firmly black-and-white where nuance might have been preferred. This is especially true of the Seal people, which is the savage British tribe that Marcus and Esca encounter. The Seal people are the ones that fought the 5,000 and that took the eagle statue. Depicting them as pure bad guys only perpetuated the imperialist ideal as being the virtuous one when that case was perhaps not the one to trumpet.
I will say that the look of the movie is fairly solid. I've appreciated the work of Kevin MacDonald and his cinematographer before. That's in many ways enough to recommend seeing this film.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images.