For an era that spanned 500 years, the Roman Empire has spawned precious few noteworthy movies recently. In fact, 2000’s Gladiator was pretty much the last major film to feature guys running around in togas and sandals. There’s not a chance The Eagle will match the award-season attention Gladiator enjoyed, but it’s still a rock-solid adventure and a captivating tale.

Channing Tatum (last seen kicking the bejeezus out of Vince Vaughn in The Dilemma) is Marcus Aquila, the son of a disgraced Roman commander who marched north in to England and promptly disappeared, along with 5,000 men and a big golden eagle that’s the pride and joy of the entire Roman Empire. As the action begins twenty years later, Marcus is taking over command at a desolate fort at the far northern reach of the Empire. He proves his mettle almost immediately, but he also gets severely injured and is shipped to the estate of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) to recover.

While recuperating, Aquila gets his very own slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), a Briton whose family fought and died against the elder Aquila. But a slave is a slave, and when Marcus decides he needs to head north to restore his family’s name and find the golden eagle, Esca goes along for the ride.

They travail across the Scottish highlands, slogging through mud, enduring harsh wind and rain (along with the piercing stares of the natives), only to finally reach the place where Marcus’ father was last seen (with the eagle) alive. Sure enough, the same folks that defeated the Roman legion all those years ago are still there, and they’re not happy to see another Roman.

Director Kevin Macdonald has already proven his talent, directing both an Oscar-winning documentary (2000’s One Day in September) and an Oscar-winning performance (Forrest Whitaker in 2003’s The Last King of Scotland). The Eagle is only Macdonald’s third non-doc film, but he comes off as a seasoned pro. He sets a clear tone early on and never strays, even when alternating between gritty, frenetic combat scenes and almost silent, sweeping shots of the Caledonian landscape. Boosted by a compelling screenplay, The Eagle becomes more than just a throw-away guy flick set in the second century. (And by ‘guy’, I mean ‘guy’. There’s not a single female speaking role in the entire thing.)

The cinematography by Slumdog Millionaire‘s Anthony Dod Mantle is unique but never distracting, and the battles are all choreographed with a freshness that’s sorely lacking these days.

Though Tatum seems wooden at times, there are real glimmers of promise in his performance. He has all the charisma needed to command your attention on screen– he just needs to stop trying so hard to ‘act’. Bell, who was so brilliant eleven years ago in Billy Elliot, is just about perfect here. His understated turn as a slave torn between duty to his master and honoring his own family is brilliant… and one of the first great performances of 2011.

The Eagle may go largely unnoticed since it had the misfortune of hitting theaters the same weekend as Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never, but it certainly deserves a spot among the best of the year… so far.

4/5 stars