About the only thing Jonathan English’s Ironclad has going for it blood; he can rest easy knowing that his film absolutely lives up to its tagline, providing copious amounts of human viscera for audience entertainment at the cost of telling a good story. Ironclad is simply bad. The only comfort I can accord the film is that it has a great deal to overcome and live up to, being a mishmash of men-on-a-mission actioner, medieval period drama, and trumped up historical fiction, but that’s frankly just making apologies for a sloppy production. English’s film exists in each of these genres and distinguishes itself from none of its forebears, and despite the impressive talent involved Ironclad ends up as no more than a generic entry in its category.
Frankly, this is something of a shame, as it could have been a riveting if embellished telling of the siege of Rochester castle in 1215 at the hands of King John. History informs us that John, refusing to take seriously the signing of the Magna Carta in the same year, attempted to retake his kingdom by force with the aid of marcher lords and hired muscle; eventually his campaign ended thanks to the combined efforts of rebellious barons and the French military. Grant that I am no historian, but what anyone can discover of the conflict is rich with politicking and strategic warfare, the sort of stuff that lends itself to great cinematic storytelling, and yet English only calls on the barest of details to cobble his narrative together. Historical accuracy is one thing, but brazen ignorance of the actual event is another entirely, but if no one knows of the history then it’s no harm, no foul– right?
The most daunting conundrum facing Ironclad is that it’s irrevocably phony. Even someone with little knowledge of Rochester’s history can read Ironclad for false: it’s not interested in anything other than getting its various pieces into place in order to unleash some gore while falling on every cliche in the book to achieve that purpose. Here, English tells the tale of Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy), a Templar knight who witnesses John’s barbarism firsthand and takes in with Baron William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) and his trademarked band of elite warriors in a bid to stymie John at Rochester castle long enough for the French army to arrive. While that’s fairly close to reality, Ironclad begs a great deal of us in terms of the suspension of disbelief regardless without offering much of worth to us in exchange for our compliance.
Everything about the film feels procedural. There’s a requisite “gathering the team” sequence in which Marshal and d’Aubigny, under the auspices of Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance), collect a ragtag group of soldiers and thugs to help repel John’s advance; a hackneyed romance which blooms between the chaste Marshal and the lady Isabel (Kata Mara); plenty of figurative mustache-twirling and actual teeth-gnashing done by the cartoonishly evil John as Rochester’s defenders inexplicably repel attack after attack; a coming-of-age subplot for a young squire untested by battle; a hokey postscript epitaph which feels completely unearned. There’s a sense that English, watching others movies of this persuasion, simply cherry-picked various characteristics of each and ultimately came up with Ironclad. Structurally cluttered, the film never really attains narrative status and instead reads as a string of ideas rather than a cohesive picture.
But does it entertain? Maybe the most unapologetic of gorehounds will find something to talk about in Ironclad‘s battle sequences– there’s plenty of arterial spray and limb severance and muscle splitting to keep fans of graphic violence satisfied. None of it matters, though; again, Ironclad is nothing more than a series of loosely connected scenes interspersed with sword fights. On a purely visceral level, the gore here is admirable enough. The problem lies in how it’s captured. I’m sure a lot of work went into making the crimson-tinged deconstruction of innumerable extras look great, but none of that effort is matched behind the camera, where cinematographer David Eggby seems content with shooting Ironclad as chaotically as possible without rendering it completely visually incoherent. In the most literal sense possible, Ironclad is gigantic bloody mess.
Where the film succeeds lies in a handful of specific performances, but only just and only because of the sheer talent on board. If English had made more use of both Giamatti and Cox, Ironclad might be a spectacle of scenery-chewing worth watching on the strength of their acting; they’re both on fire here, attacking their respective roles with relish as they posture and pronounce and generally dominate the screen whenever they have the camera’s attention. In a way, they’re so good that it grows to be problematic. No one else stands beside them well, but then the rest of the cast could be characterized as being asleep on their feet– Purefoy is lethargically bland, Mara is a blank slate, and Flemyng doesn’t seem to have any fun playing the tough guy. Given the amount of zeal displayed elsewhere in the cast, it would be impossible for Giamatti and Cox to not come out ahead here.
But they can’t save the film from itself. Two wonderfully over-the-top performances, in the end, are all that Ironclad has to offer of any lasting quality; in between there exists a shameless, soulless riff on films like Kingdom of Heaven and 300 and some well-done but poorly filmed grue. I’d be more inclined to file Ironclad under “watchable but not especially memorable” if the film clocked in at a reasonable running time, but it takes two hours for English to tell his story– thirty minutes too long.