Ironclad is a prime example of a thrilling adventure film that is hampered by the modern chaotic editing of its action scenes. Set in the 13th century, the movie follows a dedicated Templar (James Purefoy) that bands together with the local barons to defend Rochester Castle against the tyrannical King John of England (Paul Giamatti). While the plotline of a few against many doesn’t break new ground, the brutal action scenes, excellent cast, and unfamiliar outcome keep the film from feeling tied to conventions. Even the dialog has its moments that show co-writer/director John English is a rising star, if only he could get the camerawork under control. Hit the jump for my full review.
King John (Giamatti), following a bloody war with his barons, has just signed the Magna Carta that essentially eliminates his divine right to rule at his own discrepancy without challenge. Of course, getting a king to sign a document and having him follow it are very different things. Soon after, King John decides to take his country back by force and enlists the Danish with the incentive that the Pope will steer clear of their lands. A lone Templar knight named Marshall (Purefoy) survives the first conflict and sides with the barons, led by William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox), to hold up at Rochester Castle to stop King John’s advance. With less than 20 men cobbled together in an effort to slow down the approaching Danish army, the lone hope is that the French army will arrive in time.
Based on a screenplay by Stephen McDool, Erick Kastel, and English, the film attempts to tell the true story of the famous siege that took place at Rochester Castle. Of course, liberties are taken to make the film more interesting but if the end product is highly enjoyable, what’s to argue? What can be argued is the violence within Ironclad. While Hollywood has always loved a great medieval film, I can’t remember one that was quite this violent. Sure, having grown men swing massive swords at each other is typically going to have devastating effects when it lands, but this film seems to enjoy showing slightly exaggerated results. Heads can be sliced in half, and bodies cut right down the middle.
With that said, I had no qualms about the violence. Yet it should be noted for those that might feel differently. Then there is the editing of the fight sequences that should receive nearly unanimous scorn. Handheld camerawork is all the rage in action films lately, and sometimes it works well and other times it can leave you feeling queasy. Ironclad‘s action scenes have a brutality and flow to them that can be quite entertaining, yet the camerawork often trips over its own feet. Right before a crushing blow is delivered, the camera angle may switch and leave you trying to refocus on who is doing what and returning just in time to miss who was laid to waste. While Marshall can be clearly recognized by his Templar uniform, the others have a tendency to blend in with each other.
This is a shame because Purefoy shows particular grace in his swordsmanship. Luckily, the actors do get some intriguing dialog that keep the film from feeling overly burdened by the action scenes. While Giamatti seems to simply float about through the first half of the film, he has a ranting monologue of such intensity that he could have simply come in for that scene alone and justified his casting. Meanwhile, Cox, Jason Flemyng, and the rest of the rebels provide humor and do a great job of giving the audience characters you can root for. Even Purefoy, who has just broken his vow of silence, has some gems of dialog that will stick with you.
The one offbeat inclusion in the film is a romantic angle that feels out of place and harried. Kate Mara’s Lady Isabel pursues her love interest with a vigor that left me speechless. Luckily, this fast-forward romance plays itself out quickly without much effect on the pacing. In fact, the film manages to pack quite a few elements within its 121-minute runtime.
Even with a few flaws, Ironclad remains a highly enjoyable medieval flick. Films within this genre attempt grand moments of dialog that will stick with the audience and exemplify how eloquent the people were. Ironclad manages to sneak in those grandiose moments as if it weren’t even trying, and wraps it within a bloody, entertaining package. Additionally, despite the nausea-inducing camerawork, the film’s action sequences retain their intensity. Even financing made life difficult for the film, yet here it is. That’s a sign that Ironclad simply could not be held back, and I’m glad.