The tension begins: In the second century, Rome was busy expanding its empire. It made great headway in what is now England, until it hit what is now Scotland. There, 5,000 Roman soldiers and their standard -- a golden eagle atop a staff -- went missing, presumably massacred by natives not interested in being conquered.
The pre-match: Twenty years later, Marcus Aquila, son of the leader of the lost battalion, arrives in England to command a fort. Almost immediately, a skirmish breaks out between the soldiers and mystical-looking but angry natives. Marcus (Channing Tatum) acts heroically, but is badly injured and decommissioned. He decides to head north, find the Eagle and restore his family name.
The wildcard: Marcus journeys with his new slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), whose family was slaughtered by the Romans. Esca says he's loyal, and he proves a useful translator and navigator, but can he really be trusted?
The final match-up: Marcus versus the Seal People! This fearsome tribe of Scotsmen is not happy about finding Marcus and Esca poking around. Their team colors are strictly enforced: mud-covered faces; mohawks topped with bone; and, naturally, seal skins.
The battleground: A river bed, neutral ground. It's miles from either team's home base, and offers no special advantage to the coastal Seal People or the regimented Romans. Plus, lots of splashing and wet-hair whipping!
The trophy: Besides the all-important bragging rights of who is manlier, the winner keeps the bird-on-a-stick.
The outcome: Who should triumph? The Roman imperialists? The plucky natives? Frankly, it's hard to pick a favorite. As Americans, we like to stand up for land rights, and the British are our natural allies; on the other hand, the Romans are more civilized, have snappier uniforms and are led by that cute guy from Step Up. Also confusing: The Romans speak English, while the English speak something unintelligible.
Ref's call: This is a disappointing exercise, a lackluster swords-and-sandals actioner from the director of The Last King of Scotland (which was, in fact, about Uganda's Idi Amin). It's epic-lite (perhaps because it's adapted from a kids' story), with only a handful of characters and a meager quest. It's the sort of brain-be-damned film where men on horseback are pursued for days -- and caught -- by other men running on foot. There's not even a perfunctory romance, though the final scene suggests that the truest love is between a man and his former slave.
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Adapted from The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Tahir Rahim and Donald Sutherland
In English, and way-old English, with subtitles
Starts Fri., Feb. 11