There have been a few films lately about Roman soldiers caught behind enemy lines in ancient Britain (Centurion, The Last Legion, King Arthur), but none of them comes close to Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle – for atmosphere and spectacle, at least. Like the same director's Touching the Void, it's about two men being battered by nature at its most unforgiving, and, like The Last King of Scotland, it has someone venturing far out of his depth in an exotic foreign land.
Macdonald's best idea is to show Channing Tatum and his fellow Romans as modern men. Instead of addressing each other with quasi-Shakespearean formality, as movie Romans are wont to do, they chat in American accents (although Tatum sometimes has a stab at an English one), usually complaining about the state of the latrines. They may be the bad guys from a British perspective, but Macdonald lets us see them as homesick infantry stationed in a foggy wilderness surrounded by tattooed hostiles. And as Tatum travels north of Hadrian's Wall in search of the golden standard his father lost in battle 20 years earlier, both the locals and the terrain get stranger and scarier. The Eagle is inspired by Apocalypse Now as much as it is by Spartacus.
The story, though, isn't as impressive as the world Macdonald has created. It may be rip-roaring in the source novel, Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth, but on screen the quest becomes a picturesque though hardly urgent montage of hiking and horse-riding through the Highlands. You can see why it's important to Tatum to retrieve the standard, but the audience is more likely to side with his slave, Jamie Bell, when he remarks that it's just a hunk of metal, and that slaughtering Britons is nothing to be proud of, anyway. By the same token, it's hard to accept these two historic enemies as fast friends. Most Roman centurions in this sub-genre tend to go native, but Tatum is a true-blue Pict-butchering imperialist to the end.
Limitless has such a cracking wish-fulfilment premise that it's hard to know whether to be annoyed or unsurprised that the film itself does not live up to it. It stars Bradley Cooper as a struggling New York writer who is slipped an experimental new wonder drug. When he takes it, he can think more quickly and clearly than anyone else on the planet. A week later, he's polished off his novel, learnt several languages and mastered the piano – and there's a dazzling firework display of psychedelic visual effects to show just how exhilarating his chemically enhanced life has become.
Fun though all of this is, Limitless, like The Adjustment Bureau before it, ignores most of its mind-boggling story possibilities. After wheeling some arbitrary obstacles onstage and off again (the drug's side effects, a mysterious death), it has Cooper working for a Warren Buffett-like tycoon (Robert De Niro) and eluding Russian loan sharks, which is a bit like a Superman film in which he becomes the world's fastest bike messenger. For someone with Cooper's "four-digit IQ", brokering corporate mergers seems like an awfully limited occupation.
The third new film from the revived Hammer studios, Wake Wood is the first that feels like a proper Hammer horror, complete with a remote village, Pagan rituals, and geysers of bright red fake blood. It's also got a spooky, soulful story, even if it's one that Stephen King fans will know already. Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen are sympathetic as a couple who hope to bring their daughter back from the dead; Timothy Spall twinkles in the Christopher Lee role of the village squire. Only the cheapo-looking camerawork spoils things – although that, too, is true to its Hammer heritage.
Nicholas Barber has a taste of Oranges and Sunshine, the debut film from Jim "son of Ken" Loach
Also Showing: 27/03/11
Country Strong (117 mins, 12A)
Gwyneth Paltrow plays the promiscuous, alcoholic country'n' western megastar we're supposed to feel sorry for in this directionless Nashville melodrama. Tim McGraw is her husband and manager, Garrett Hedlund is her songwriting boyfriend, and Leighton Meester the starlet poised to take her crown – and they're all as self-involved and duplicitous as she is. Hedlund, in particular, is utterly reprehensible, and yet he's presented as the voice of integrity. Weak.
Faster (98 mins, 15)
Turgid Kill Bill rip-off with Dwayne Johnson in the Uma Thurman role, gunning down the low-lives responsible for his brother's death. It gets off to a satisfyingly lurid start, but, considering the title, it's astonishing how slow Faster becomes, as it detours away from Johnson's killing spree time and time again. Do we really need to be told about the childhood illnesses and custody disputes of every minor character? Billy Bob Thornton and Carla Gugino are among those putting the brakes on.
A Turtle's tale: Sammy's Adventures (89 mins, U)
This cartoon for young children boasts some beautifully animated marine wildlife that floats before your eyes in 3D. What it doesn't boast is a story. The narrator (John Hurt) even confesses that the characters do nothing at all for "10 years", which won't wash with Finding Nemo fans. After that, the titular turtle has some very minor skirmishes with fishermen and sharks, but calling any of them "adventures" would be pushing it.