After watching only 30 minutes of Ironclad, one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to be another period drama, this time set in the early 1200s and focusing on King John (portrayed here by Paul Giamatti). There’s bloodshed in this first half hour, but mostly we’re just setting up our story. It takes quite a while to get to what the film is really about, which ends up being the siege of Rochester Castle.
Those of you who know what that is prior to the film won’t need the explanation, but here’s the gist of it. King John signed the Magna Carta, but is currently going back on his words because he wants to. For whatever reason, the Pope has given the King a blessing to do whatever he wants, and there is seemingly no stopping him. John even kills a priest and his Templars for little reason. Basically, he’s a jerk and a bully and that’s why we’re going to root for the other characters, many of whom are neither of those negative personality types. That’s not to say that they’re really good people, but they’re better than he is based solely on the small amount of time we get to spend with them.
Essentially what’s going to happen is this: A small group of people (around six or so) are going to take control of a small, yet important fort, and then defend it for as long as it takes the French to come and offer them reinforcements. Well, six named characters, although I believe it is said that around twenty are actually there to do the fighting. King John’s army contains over 1,000 men, so you can see how this is going to be a difficult task. The first thirty minutes take us up until Rochester is about to be taken, while the rest of the film (almost another 90 minutes) has our characters defend it.
What results from this are a great deal of action scenes, all of which are incredibly bloody. Whenever a limb is chopped off, and this happens a lot, you’ll get to see a ton of CGI blood and gore fly everywhere, sometimes getting on the camera, obscuring our view. And since we’re already cutting more frequently than a butcher with his meat, it can often be difficult to tell just what’s going on. This isn’t helped by the fact that all of the soldiers look alike and wear similar armor. I couldn’t tell, for most of the time, anyway, who was killing whom, except for the fact that if a named character died, we’ll zoom in on his face.
The filmmakers also tried to counter this issue by having the main characters fight without helmets for most of the time, although it didn’t help all that much. The action scenes are exciting, and we get to see some fun swordplay, but if you’re hoping to be able to determine who is winning while they’re taking place, you’ll be disappointed. Ironclad saves those decisions until after the swords have stopped clashing.
There’s also the obligatory romance subplot involving our leader, the Templar named Thomas (James Purefoy) and a woman at Rochester Castle, Isabel (Kate Mara), despite the fact that she’s married to Chornhill (Derek Jacobi). Being a Templar, he has taken vows to not even speak or look at a woman, but she continues to make advances toward him. It’s not really clear why and this makes it seem even more forced than it should. We know that it was included because such a plot like that is almost mandatory, but not giving it a reason draws attention to the fact that it’s unnecessary.
Apart from the actors I have already mentioned, the supporting cast consists of Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Jason Felmyng, Jamie Foreman, and Mackenzie Cook, among others. That’s a pretty good cast, if you ask me, and keep that in mind when I tell you that it’s hard to tell who each character is at any given point. I know that Cox’s character gets the main group together, but once that job is accomplished, he fades into the background just like everyone else. They all get an introductory scene, but these attempts weren’t successful at getting us to remember the characters or giving us reason to care about them.
I remember that one of them used a bow and arrow, one used an ax, and the rest used swords. I was instantly reminded of Lord of the Rings, and in particular the battle at Helms Deep. It was like the film was trying to be like a gory, B-movie-type tribute to that franchise, and that battle in particular. The bow and arrow in particular stood out, mostly because it was used as impractically as possible and almost had to be referencing Lord of the Rings. Otherwise, the character makes no sense.
The only actor who made an impression on me was Giamatti, as he portrays the king in such a gloriously over-the-top way that it’s hard not to take notice. But he also is the only person in the film who actually gets something that almost resembles a real character, and we come to understand him well thanks to a monologue he gives about something that happened to him as a child. But that’s about the only character that’s even somewhat deep here, and that’s stretching it a bit.
Ironclad is certainly an action-packed film, but the action is difficult to follow and none of the characters are easily distinguishable from the others. It’s hard to even tell the good guys from the villains, and that’s a major problem in a film like this. The love story also felt really tacked-on, and it didn’t help give depth to any of the characters involved. But if you want a bloody castle siege film, this might satisfy.