Color me surprised and impressed. I was not looking forward with a great deal of anticipation to seeing lunkhead Channing Tatum as a soldier in Roman-era Britain, except beyond the obvious likelihood that such an endeavor would be processed Hollywood cheese, and hence hootingly entertaining. But while he ain’t exactly Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Tatum acquits himself admirably here, in a film that clearly intends to ensure Hollywood cheese is the last thing that comes to mind… and it succeeds admirably, too. Working from the young-adult novel by Rosemary Sutcliff [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play) and screenwriter Jeremy Brock (Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland) have crafted an earnest period action drama that stubbornly clings to old-fashioned craftsmanship in character and storytelling — that’s sort of a radical notion at the moment — as it introduces us to Marcus Aquila (Tatum: The Dilemma), a freshly minted officer newly arrived in Britain who asked for the posting so that he might restore his family’s honor, lost these 20 years after his commander father went missing in wildest Caledonia with an entire legion of 5,000 men as well as their eagle emblem, a potent symbol of Rome. Inherent here is a clear anti-imperialist motif that is transparently meant to indict some current imperialist adventuring — unless Macdonald was only being kind to Tatum by surrounding him with two-millennia-ago Roman soldiers speaking with American accents, including the always excellent American actor Denis O’Hare (Edge of Darkness), and English actor Mark Strong (Robin Hood), eschewing his own accent. Yet Macdonald is not without sympathy for the on-the-ground Roman grunts, either, casting them as honest men doing a dirty job as well as they can, even when they’re downright terrified at the prospect of battle. So it’s not with any cruelty or spite that we are presented with the subtle lessons Marcus gets in perspective: that even an enemy can be honorable, that civilization is in the eye of the beholder. For as Marcus journeys into darkest Scotland in search of the eagle, and his family’s reputation — accompanied by Esca (Jamie Bell: Defiance), a native slave who despises everything Marcus stands for — he gets a smackdown to his arrogance and his ignorance. Vital to the film’s own sense of honor, however, is that Marcus, though he gets a taste of humility and a slightly wider worldview, is never required to be a traitor to his own ideals. It’s a nicely nuanced outlook for a deceptively simple story to take.