- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Arc Entertainment
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
el Gibson can rest easy: “Braveheart” is still the best historical action film of the modern era. In fact, “Ironclad” doesn’t even come close, although it certainly had the potential to be a lot more fun than it is. Though the “Seven Samurai”-like plot device has been played to death in cinema, "Ironclad" is unique in that it's one of the few medieval takes on the classic men-on-a-mission story that doesn’t involve someone named Robin Hood. Unfortunately, director Jonathan English isn’t up to the task, squandering his impressive cast on a poorly executed story that results in a film that plays more like a big-budget TV movie than anything resembling Gibson’s medieval epic.
The film takes place in 1215, shortly after King John (Paul Giamatti) has been forced to sign the Magna Carta following his defeat at the hands of the Knights Templar. Desperate to inflict revenge and reclaim the land he believes to be rightfully his, John enlists an army of Danish mercenaries and begins to fight his way back to London. The church knows that the tyrannical king’s first order of business will be taking control of Rochester Castle, a key strategic location in southern England, so rebel soldier William D'Aubigny (Brian Cox) assembles a small group of men – including former Templar knight John Marshall (James Purefoy) and a young squire (Aneurin Barnard) – to protect the castle until French reinforcements arrive. That is, if Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) can even convince them to come to their aid.
It may be rooted in historical fact, but “Ironclad” is about as likely to be confused for a history lesson on 13th Century England as “Gladiator” would for Ancient Rome. Which is to say although it’s inspired by real events, a lot of it has been embellished for dramatic effect. Of course, that doesn’t seem to be of much concern to English, who uses the siege as a means to stage gritty and ultra-violent battle sequences filled with buckets of fake blood and severed limbs. It gets to the point where all the bloodshed is almost comical, with one character even resorting to using a recently severed arm as a weapon like he’s in some kind of twisted version of “Monty Python & the Holy Grail.”
Though the battles are well-staged, the downtime in between each wave of attack is mind-numbingly boring. There’s not much emphasis placed on developing any of the characters (what’s the point if most of them are just going to die, right?), while the half-hearted romance between Marshall and Kate Mara's lady of the castle is totally devoid of any emotion. You’d think that with such a great cast, there would be plenty of opportunities for the actors to rescue the movie from English’s poor direction, but it actually works conversely, as it only becomes increasingly more obvious how much their talent is being wasted as the film progresses. Paul Giamatti is the only one who really takes advantage of the freedom he's given, delivering a master class in chewing scenery with exactly the kind of gleefully over the top performance the movie needed.
In the end, however, it’s just not enough. The rest of the actors seem to be on auto-pilot, while the handheld camera work that’s employed during the battle sequences comes off looking shoddy as a result of being filmed on digital. The biggest problem, though, is that English just isn’t a good enough director to handle a story where the characters spend a majority of the movie holed up in a castle. It doesn’t matter how many great actors you surround yourself with, or how many bodies you slice in half – if you can’t make a film like “Ironclad” more exciting than this, then you’re doing something wrong.