Ironclad is the sort of movie where they behand three people in a row. And when it’s busy behanding people or cleaving them in two or launching them from catapults to smash into walls, it’s pretty good. It’s also pretty good whenever Paul Giamatti, playing King John, is allowed to just devour every bit of scenery around him. Everything else, though, is bumpier.
Based on a true event, Ironclad is a siege movie in the truest sense in that it’s actually about a medieval siege. Just after King John was forced by rebellious barons to sign the Magna Carta - the groundbreaking document that paved the way for individual freedoms - he got himself involved in the First Baron’s War, a civil war that stemmed from his refusal to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta. He actually got Pope Innocent to declare the whole thing blasphemous and to excommunicate all of the rebellious bishops.
One of the key moments in that war was the siege of Castle Rochester, a strategically important keep outside of London. That’s the bit of history with which Ironclad plays fast, loose and bloody.
There are two problems that Ironclad never overcomes. The first is that a siege movie is tough no matter what, because there’s a repetitive nature to sieges. The fact that director Jonathan English has a limited bag of action tricks doesn’t help. He shakes the camera a lot, he fades out the diagetic sound every now and again (sometimes muffling everything, sometimes playing music over it) and he sprays digital blood on the lens of the camera. The different battles are all essentially interchangeable, and you could take shots from the second or third battle and put them in the first battle and no one would know any better.
The other problem is that the characters are empty sacks. Giamatti invests King John with a delightfully over the top anger, and James Purefoy’s ex-Templar has something of an arc, but everybody else is just kind of there. This is one of those movies where the underdogs put together a ragtag group, and those movies are fun when the ragtag group has personalities. In Ironclad some of them have traits. Some of them.
But while it’s repetitive and sometimes poorly shot, the action in Ironclad is notably gory. Sadly much of that gore is of the digital variety, but even still there are plenty of shots of limbs being hewn off (and used as weapons), heads being split so cleanly you can see inside the skull and bodies torn asunder. I wish all of this had been in the service of something more compelling (or that the action surrounding it had been more interesting), but sometimes guys in armor cutting each other to ribbons is just what you need.
Brian Cox has almost as much fun as Giamatti, playing a rebellious archbishop who says things like ‘Get off my back!,’ which doesn’t really sound all that 12th century to me. Kate Mara often looks stunning, but her love story with Purefoy’s chaste knight couldn’t ring any falser. Purefoy seems to be having no fun, and Jason Flemyng seems like he should be having fun as the whoring warrior.
Ironclad more or less sticks to the historical truth (it embellishes and streamlines things, sure, but it gets the general sweep of the siege right) up until the end. And then in the last minutes the film takes a hard right turn away from reality, and does so in a way that makes no actual sense. Except for the sense that comes from ‘Audiences want happy endings.’ Ironclad is pretty generic for much of its running time, and I was hoping that the ending could escape that sense of ‘seen it.’ It doesn’t.
Essentially watchable, Ironclad is another of those sword fighting movies that runs on the premise that making everything muddy is the same thing as being realistic. It does absolutely nothing new, but it does offer a few scattered pleasures. At two hours it’s too long, but it’s certainly worth a watch if you’re the kind of person who likes movies that make you say ouch at the onscreen violence.