The gladiatorial thumbs-up or thumbs-down is a key plot point in the ancient Roman adventure "The Eagle."
The movie itself merits more of a thumb wriggling horizontally, nudging upward for its precise detail and gorgeous landscapes but downward for its somewhat hollow characters and their admirable but monotonous sense of honor.
Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell deliver solid though unremarkable performances as a former Roman soldier and a British slave on a quest beyond the edge of the known world to retrieve the standard of a lost legion that vanished in the wilds of 2nd century Scotland.
Director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") crafts a technically sumptuous epic, glorious to the eye though often dry and uninvolving to the ear.
The screenplay was adapted by Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel "The Eagle of the Ninth," a tale written for young readers that simply does not ripen well for the modern grown-up audience at which the film is aimed.
The intense skirmishes and images are suited for adult crowds, yet the ideals and emotions that bond the main characters are boyish and stunted, leaving "The Eagle" caught between mature action and shallow characterizations.
"The Eagle" opens with Tatum's Marcus Aquila arriving in Britain to take command of a garrison that quickly comes under siege by native hordes that want to wipe out their Roman occupiers (shades of American imperialism can be read into the scenario, but the resemblance is fleeting and undeveloped).
Marcus' heroism saves his men, but he's seriously wounded and cashiered out of military service. Recuperating at the villa of his uncle (Donald Sutherland), Marcus broods over his real purpose for coming to Britain: to restore the honor of his family and discover the fate of his father, who commanded the 5,000 men of the Ninth Legion, which disappeared along with its golden eagle standard 20 years earlier after marching into Scotland.
Attending a gladiatorial match, Marcus saves the life of defiant slave Esca (Bell), who harbors fierce hatred of the Romans but swears loyalty to Marcus, whose uncle purchases him to serve his nephew.
Spurred on by rumors that the eagle has been spotted among a distant northern tribe, Marcus sets off with Esca as his guide and translator in the savage, unexplored highlands, where they meet a former Roman soldier (Mark Strong) and face off against hordes of Rome's most-bitter enemies.
Marcus and Esca start off as uneasy companions who come to respect and even cherish each other through shared adversity, so it's basically a road-trip about mismatched buddies, only without the laughs.
Actually, without a hint of humor. "The Eagle" is so relentlessly austere, it paints a picture of a Roman Empire that may have fallen not so much because of the barbarians outside the gate as the sourpusses inside.
We don't need Marcus and Esca trading wisecracks and giving each other nuggies. But it's hard to go along for the ride when the characters act more like statuary than people.