Directed by: Jonathan English
Written by: Erick Kastel, Jonathan English, Stephen McDool
Starring: Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi, James Purefoy, Jason Flemyng, Kate Mara, Mackenzie Crook, Paul Giamatti
(15) Running time: 121 minutes
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Time for a little history lesson then as Jonathan English’s Ironclad tells a small portion of past English battles. There is no doubt that if you are a fan of films like this then you will enjoy it, absolutely no question whatsoever, and the story is not one that covers the whole of Britain or even other parts of the world. No, Ironclad is based almost entirely at Rochester castle which is in Kent. The famous castle was placed alongside the River Medway and served as a protector of England’s South East coast. A small bit of information here, but the castle is one of the best preserved in the whole of Europe right now, and is well worth a visit. In 13th Century England, a three year war between King John and the baron’s of England aided by the Knights Templar, has ended with King John signing the Magna Carta. This was known as the ‘Great Charter’ and it meant equal rights to all Englishmen, thus reducing the power of the Monarchy. King John felt forced to sign this, and shortly after begins a bloody revenge on all those who had a part in making him sign. The Knights Templar being his main target. He has brought in Danish Mercenaries to help, with a promise that the Pope would keep Missionaries out of Denmark.
We join the three Templar Knights, lead by Abbot Marcus, on their way to Canterbury. They have taken a vow of silence, and on the way stop off at Darnay Castle to rest. While there King John turns up and slaughters many, and also hangs Darnay and cuts out the tongue of Abbot Marcus. Marshal (Purefoy) and two other Knights do their best to fight off King John and his army, but lose and Marshal escapes, carrying a battered Marcus who eventually dies. Marshal then gets his chance for revenge as he is asked at Canterbury to help defend Rochester Castle from King John’s advances. Taking a team of the best fighters, as good old fashioned swords and sandals epics go, the team head for Rochester Castle to fight, and fight they shall!!
Ironclad wastes no time getting down to the violence, and makes its mark almost straight away with King John’s first attack. Bones are broken, limbs hacked off and blood sprays everywhere! This is without doubt some of the best and most vicious fighting I have seen in a film like this in a while. Granted Neil Marshall’s Centurion was a savage onslaught last year, but Ironclad is on a bigger, more epic scale and the fact most of the fighting takes place in the same castle means it all feels much more real and, at times, scary. Marshal’s fighters are made up of some true to form, big and brutal characters including Brian Cox as Albany, the quiet, thinking man who is a sight to fear once he brandishes his weapon. Jason Flemyng plays the argumentative Becket, who is not exactly Marshal’s biggest fan, and tucked away in with the Castle’s own team of fighters is Mackenzie Crook as Marks, an expert with a bow and arrow. The characters are all like-able and believable, and oddly enough you do actually care for them as the battles take place. Paul Giamatti superbly plays King John, and his fearsome presence and vicious actions really make you worry for the soldiers fighting against him. Giamatti has been criticised for ‘over-playing’ his role, but I think he served the role justice and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. For a role that was one of the main characters in the film, it turns out it only took him a week to film his parts, proof that he is a great actor who can get it right straight away. The leader of his fearsome Danish mercenaries is Tiberius, again expertly played by Vladimir Kulich, he towers over most of his enemies, and you just know there will be a showdown with him at some point.
So, the characters are all well realised, and there is even time for a little romance between Marshal and Isabel (Mara) who lives in the castle. With epic fight scenes, great characters and a fast moving pace and some stunning visuals and scenery, you’d think Ironclad was a perfect film. In some ways it is, a historical film that doesn’t really require much prior knowledge, and is careful not to bombard you with too much information during the film. However, with fight scenes as good and brutal as this, it’s hard for the film to keep your interest during the more ‘talky’ scenes, and even the minor romance story doesn’t really help your interest. There are also plenty of those horrible cheesy moments, and those heroic moments you just wish could be left out of this type of film, just for once. We get it, we know these were tough men, but you don’t need to show all their deaths in slow motion, and we also don’t need to see the embarrassing facial expressions of worried comrades, also in slow motion now do we? Speeches are kept to a minimum, thankfully, but there is an overwhelming sense of childlike fun running through Ironclad’s veins, a feeling of ‘we need to please the masses rather than spoil the serious film fan’. This is in no way a sell out, but I would have preferred a different approach to the usual historical epic, something a bit more cutting edge, new and inventive.
It is clear that Ironclad’s strengths are in its battle scenes and strong characters, and on those merits the film really delivers. As I said before, you will not see many battle scenes quite as violent as these, and my God they are fun to watch, really really fun. Giamatti’s over the top King is a joy to watch too, and the films overall presentation is expertly realised and well produced. The music does feel a bit samey as you get with all these types of film, but I suppose it does what is intended by rousing those emotions. All in all Ironclad is a very safe historical epic, it doesn’t try anything new and is happy to follow the usual formula which, to be fair, works. The only issue is that it will now sit nicely alongside others of the same genre, instead of rearing its ugly head above them and standing out.