The Establishing Shot: Ironclad Review

Wednesday, March 09, 2011 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

IroncladTowards the end of last year my list of films I was looking forward to in 2011 was quiet small and only consisted of; True Grit, Brighton Rock and Ironclad.

Ironclad poster

Ironclad was on my list for the same reason as Brighton Rock - back in August I got to see some early footage of Ironclad and listen to its makers and actors talk about it. I might be a bit biased because I do enjoy a good swords/swashbuckling adventure but the footage I saw was absolutely spectacular - it showed a medieval battle scene taking place at a castle. The fight was intense, brutal and shot in the style of Saving Private Ryan/Bourne films but with a strong indy feel to it. I was immediately hooked and hoping for a medieval epic that might rival the mighty Conan the Barbarian or the brilliant Excalibur. Like Conan and Excalibur the action didn’t look like it was watered down, as we have come to expect from these type of action films and it also had a really top notch cast including heavyweights like; Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox (still the most menacing Hannibal Lecter/Lecktor), James Purefoy and Paul Giamatti.

So last week I finally got to see Ironclad and this is what I thought.

Where Ironclad is different from Conan is that it has basis in historical fact - when it takes us back to 13th century England. To around the time just after King John was forced into signing the Magna Carta - the basis for most legal constitutions in the free world and also recently featured as the crux of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. But the tyrannical King John is not happy about signing a freedom charter that forces him give up some of his power, gives land barons greater control of their property as well as affords free men some rights. So he does what any self respecting tyrant would do he gathers a mercenary army to; quell the rebellion, take control of England back and rescind the Magna Carta.

On his way up from Dover to affirm his dominance by taking control of London, King John and his mercenary army reign destruction and vengeance on everything in their path but - they have to cross the Medway river and unfortunately for King John the only way across the river is via a bridge that is protected by Rochester Castle. The very castle that has been taken over by rebels intent on holding the castle till reinforcements arrive. What follows is one of the bloodiest sieges in English history.

Ironclad does take some liberties with history but by and large follows historical fact. It centers on Marshall a pious Templar Knight recently back from the Crusades. Now I know that any proponent of organized religion particularly Christianity has taken a serious knock in recent years, what with the; bad press, enslaving and torturing of less mechanised cultures, rise of conspiracy theories and general bullying of non-believers. But there was a time when the Knights Templar were perceived as the equivalent of the Special Forces/Marines/Calvary all rolled into one. And Marshall is a fine example of these bad asses. Solidly played by the increasingly cool and current go to guy for Sword & Sandals epics like A Knights Tale, Rome, Solomon Kane) James Purefoy. As much as I like Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale James Bond I still can’t help but wonder what Purefoy’s version might have been. But Marshall isn’t just a killing machine driven by divine right. No, as with all modern protagonists he is flawed and has hidden depth – you see after witnessing the brutality of war he is undergoing a crisis of religion. And by that I don’t mean that he has become a soft quite the contrary - he’s a bad ass, wielding a 6 foot long sword that can slice people in two which he uses with steely determination.

Ironclad Review
James Purefoy kicking ass and taking names

When the church identifies that King John is on his way to London Marshall volunteers for the seemingly suicide mission of trying to stall him while reinforcements are grouped. He is matched by Brian Cox’s Baron Albany a merchant that previously dabbled in war and has a handful of contacts to draw on to bring together a formidable band of brothers.

ironclad review
Ironclad - Paul Giamatti as mad as a march hare King John

So on the one side we have the insane King John played with delicious malevolent brutality by Paul Giamatti. He is absolutely off his rocker and his performance alone is worth the price of a cinema ticket. You’ll be giggling at his insanity one second and then grimacing at his brutality the next. Backed by his fierce Danish mercenary army.

And on the other side Marshall and Albany’s bunch of rag tag heroes. Our bunch of heroes can barely stand to be around each other never mind act as a cohesive battalion - yet each have their own reason for joining the mission and come to together as a force to be reckoned with.

Ironclad is brutal and you’ll be mostly enthralled throughout not only is the main plot engaging but Ironclad has numerous subplots weaved together to develop the characters as well as maintain your interest. It all moves at break neck speed. Apart from the great performances, one of the other highlights of Ironclad was the distinctive visual style. The camera work really immerses you in medieval England including drawing you into some of the most brutal fights scenes seen on a screen in a while.

Rather than mention every actor in Ironclad and how great performances are I’m going to say it once for the record. Pretty much all the performances are solid. Our heroes are noble and brave (James Purefoy), the tyrants are violently insane (Paul Giamatti), the Danish mercenaries are stoic, cold and menacing (Vladimir Kulich). The religious types are dedicated (Charles Dance), the royals are given old school credibility (Derek Jacobi) and our rag tag band of brothers are each fleshed out by the actors playing them. It really is great to see show stealing performances from talent like; Jason Flyming (without piles of makeup or CG for a change) Jamie Foreman and Mackenzie Crook while sharing the screen with English legends.

Ironclad Review
James Purefoy not to be messed with

Now the bad bits Ironclad would have been a flawless action adventure for me had it not been for an incredulous romantic subplot that felt slightly tacked on - I just couldn’t get my head around it. Not only does it change the dynamics of characters we have come to trust on screen but it takes the tone of the film into areas incongruent with the rest of the pace and feel of the film. It also limits Kate Mara’s performance as Lady Isabel, somewhat of an otherwise superb rendition of English nobility. The only other element that was a bit flat for me was some of the humour’s timing is slightly off - I say some as the bulk of the humour it genuinely funny and on point.

All in all Ironclad is a much needed adult return to the medieval genre with more than enough powerhouse performances and bite to make for a great action film as well ensure it’s place high up in the medieval genre.

Ironclad is released this Friday March 4, 2011

Director: Jonathan English

Starring: James Purefoy, Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Kate Mara, Jason Flemyng, Paul Giamatti, Mackenzie Crook, Jamie Foreman

Ironclad Review