"ON WINGS OF EAGLES" — 2½ stars — Joseph Fiennes, Elizabeth Arends, Bruce Locke, Shawn Dou; PG-13 (violent images); available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and other streaming services
Stephen Shin and Michael Parker’s “On Wings of Eagles” is a sequel of sorts to 1981's “Chariots of Fire,” which chronicled the inspiring story of champion runner Eric Liddell. But here, memories of the 1924 Olympics are in the distant past, and the inspiring Vangelis soundtrack has been replaced by the drums of war.
“On Wings of Eagles” picks up in the late 1930s, after Liddell (played by Joseph Fiennes) has relocated to China with his young family. While Liddell has enjoyed years of successful and fulfilling work as a teacher, the threat of World War II continues to grow, and as the occupying Imperial Japanese forces tighten their oppressive grip, Liddell decides to send his wife Florence (Elizabeth Arends) and their children home while he stays behind.
Liddell soon finds himself evicted from his home. After taking up refuge in his own school, the attack on Pearl Harbor makes the U.S.-Japanese conflict official, and Liddell is relocated to the Weihsien Japanese internment camp.
The sign over the camp entrance reads “Courtyard of the Happy Way,” but happiness is a rare emotion through the bulk of Shin and Parker’s film, which follows Liddell and his comrades as they struggle to survive the scant conditions, which seem to affect their captors as much as the prisoners.
“On Wings of Eagles” is narrated by Xu Niu (Bruce Locke offers the voiceover and Shawn Dou performs onscreen.) Niu is Liddell’s friend and former driver, who works from the outside to smuggle additional supplies into the camp. On the inside, Liddell continues to teach, focusing on service to the degree that he frequently gives away his own food and, on occasion, he even finds that his old running skills come in handy in unexpected ways.
“Chariots of Fire” was noted as the story of a man who refused to compete on the Sabbath, and a similar religious thread runs through “On Wings of Eagles,” frequently through the repeated melody of “Be Still My Soul.” Here, though, the theme has less to do with the standard Liddell is trying to maintain, and more to do with the charity Liddell’s faith has rooted in his heart, even toward the captors who so desperately seek to break him.
“On Wings of Eagles” may remind viewers of 2014’s “Unbroken,” another story of a champion runner imprisoned in a camp during World War II. Sadly, that comparison fails to serve Shin and Parker’s effort, as Angelina Jolie’s film felt much more intense and intimate, where too often “On Wings of Eagles” keeps the audience at arm’s length. Especially early on in the film, "On Wings of Eagles" feels distant and disengaged, letting action happen offscreen instead of bringing the audience into the power of the moment.
“On Wings of Eagles” has its moments later on, and it benefits from the veteran Fiennes in the lead role. But overall, the film's execution feels a little lukewarm, even though Eric Liddell’s story still resonates.
"On Wings of Eagles" is rated PG-13 for violent images; running time: 98 minutes.