Judge David Johnson is often clad in cashmere.
Heavy metal goes medieval.
Paul Giamatti as a scenery-chewing evil king. James Purefoy as a lethal Templar Knight who can cut a grown man in half with one swing of his broadsword. Gareth from the The Office UK as an expert marksman. The awesome Viking king from The 13th Warrior as a Danish mercenary. Flaming hog fat.
All the ingredients are in place to make Ironclad the greatest movie ever made—can director Jonathan English follow through and conjure a stew so bad-ass it can regenerate eunuch balls?
Facts of the Case
It's the 13th century and King John (Giamiatti, The Hangover Part II) has just signed the Magna Carta, essentially neutralizing his reign. Eager to get England back and maybe murder a few of the conspiring barons along the way, he enlists the help of a Danish fighting force, led by Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich, The 13th Warrior), a towering blonde bombshell of a man. They quickly march across the land, reclaiming power, and slaughtering any that resist.
The archbishop opts to defy The Vatican's sanctioning of these actions and enlists his own fighting force to make a stand against King John at Rochester Castle, the keystone to all of Britain. A surly merchant (Brian Cox, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) with a penchant for inflicting violence on others is tasked with assembling the crew. His first draftee: Marshal (Purefoy, Rome) an enigmatic Templar Knight who seems hesitant about spilling blood, yet when the situation calls for it is more than able to carve up his opponents with the efficiency of a Daisy Cutter.
And blood will be spilled.
Oh yes it will.
What a Biblically tough move Ironclad was to find. I sniffed it out early on when it was dropping at a handful of screenings, then again when it premiered on video-on-demand and made a lightning-fast run on what must have been two theaters nationwide. Finally, after months of pacing, I was able to spin the Blu-ray and see if my abnormally high expectations could be met, or (pray-tell) exceeded.
The answer? Ironclad is a damn good movie, but falls just short of the pants-stabbingly awesome exercise in bravura and bloodshed I had been pining for. Yes, there is a degree of a disappointment, but the downgrade is slight and due to three specific things: 1) Kate Mara's character, 2) a missing action beat, and 3) my completely unfair, borderline rabid, anticipation. Writer/director Jonathan English can't do anything about that third element, but if he was able to address the first two, then we'd seriously be talking about an action experience for the ages.
Kate Mara (127 Hours) plays Isabel, the unhappy wife of the Baron of the Rochester Castle, and her character is terrible. She's set up as both Marshal's love interest and conscience. The former is safer and less interesting than a Templar who squelches his desires and holds true to his oath, and the latter is unnecessary; Marshal repeatedly voices his disinterest in the glory of slaughter. Points to English for not subjecting the audience to a drawn-out, anachronistic lecture about the evils of the Crusades (Marshal's silence on the matter is proof enough over his conflict); demerits for Isabel's hammy monologue questioning Marshal's dumb choice to keep his runaway human impulses in check. "I am not a sin." Blecch.
With that out of my system, take solace in the fact that Isabel isn't a huge part of the film. At worst, she's a distraction from the bounty of gory, Dane-smiting shenanigans that drive Ironclad forward. It's a well-paced affair, with English spending just enough time assembling his force, giving them distinct personalities, laying out the stakes, and getting them to the castle. From that point on, you get four separate, large-scale siege sequences, all of them rife with horror-movie level carnage and shot cleanly enough so you can soak in the action. There is some shaky-cam work, though it's used sporadically. The action carries weight and becomes suspenseful because we do end up caring that these guys face such the overwhelming odds, King John is an utter tool, and the Magna Carta is worth defending (even though the film's historical accuracy isn't flawless).
Purefoy is an underrated action guy and Ironclad makes a case for why he should be getting more work as a brawler, using a broadsword roughly the size of a canoe to mince his foes with grace and verve. What's truly surprising, and gives me hope English will get more reps as a director, is that the larger-scale action—catapults, siege tower attacks, full-on castle demolition—looks high-end and not something in line with the relatively modest $25 million budget he had to work with. Back the Brinks truck up to this guy's office and let's see what kind of havoc he can wreak.
One benefit of waiting so long for Ironclad is that I get to watch it for the first time in high definition…and it is glorious. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is beautiful, a highly-detailed extravaganza that brings the period to life; grit, grime, and blood and all. The action is easy to follow and the epic scope of its sequences is truly impressive in heightened resolution. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is live and punishing, a true wall-rattler when the mayhem kicks in. A director's commentary is the lone extra.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One last small gripe. The face-off that had been built up from the beginning between Marshal and Tiberius was a few beats short of being the legendary confrontation it should have been. To his credit, English acknowledges this in his commentary and laments that he was unable to extend the fight due to budget constraints.
Brutal, uncompromising, and genuinely exciting, Ironclad delivers a full-bore cinematic beatdown that's just a few degrees shy of occupying a spot in the pantheon of all-time greats. On Blu-ray is how you must watch it.
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Studio: Arc Entertainment
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