Wednesday, January 18, 2012


It's becoming a habit.  I see a movie that I am unfamiliar with and would normally ignore, but then I notice an actor or director.  And then I recognize other cast members.  Pretty soon, I am watching the movie with the hope of discovering a diamond in the rough; the problem is that diamonds are (unsurprisingly) rare.  That's how I stumbled upon Ironclad.  Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox, Jason Flemyng and Derek Jacobi --- none of whom I trust to headline a movie, mind you --- tend to play solid supporting roles, and I had a vague recollection of James Purefoy from the Rome DVD covers.  The tagline is "Blood.  Will.  Run."  All of that should add up to a decent movie, right?
Judging by hair and makeup, I'd guess a period comedy

Ironclad opens with some narration about some of the basic reasons King John of England (Paul Giamatti) was forced to sign the Magna Carta, the document that essentially began the decline of the monarchy in the West and the rise of the individual.  This movie is not about the signing of the Magna Carta, though.  Ironclad is the story of what happened next, which is often overlooked.  After signing this important historical document, King John quickly waged war on the barons that had forced him to sign it, and he did it with Danish mercenaries.  
All of whom were designed by Frank Frazetta
Marshal (James Purefoy) was a Templar Knight who, like so many other recent film knights, had seen too much evil done in battle.  And, because this is a movie, that means that he is fated to see even more battle within the next few hours.  Marshal passed word of John's ill deeds on to others, including  the author of the Magna Carta, Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance), and a freedom-loving baron, William Albany (Brian Cox).  Agreeing that John must be stopped, the trio also agree that the place to do it is at Rochester Castle.  The castle isn't much to look at, but realty and strategic military objectives often share the same slogan: location, location, location.  If John plans to take the fight to London, he needs to capture Rochester Castle.  Albany and Marshal agree to take a few men to the castle and protect it to the last man against the evil of King John. 
Actual dialogue: "YEAAARRGH!"

I don't have any real problems with the idea of Ironclad.  Sure, I realize that the details of the film are not historically accurate, in the same way that the course of history isn't accurate when you play Sid Meier's Civilization on "Easy."
Above: my Civilization III navy, circa 1400
That reminds me...nobody ever uses the word "ironclad" in Ironclad.  Isn't that kind of strange?  It's not without precedent, of course, but I expected to see something heavily armored in the movie, at the very least.  Oh well, that's not a huge deal. 

While I have no problem with the idea behind Ironclad, I have some significant problems with its execution, starting with the cast.  Brian Cox was over-dramatic, but it was a part that called for some bombastic speeches, and he delivered them with enthusiasm.  Vladimir Kulich was pretty entertaining as John's lead Danish henchman, but he didn't get enough opportunities to show off.  I was conflicted over Paul Giamatti's performance as King John, though.  I liked that John isn't portrayed as a coward or a spoiled child, as he typically is.  I'm fine with the choice to make him into a meanie jerkface.  But Giamatti's typically solid performance has a hard time overcoming the fact that he looks like this:
You Paul Giamatti in a bad wig and silly clothes
Giamatti chewed on some scenery and gave a couple of nasty speeches, but I couldn't enjoy his nastiness because he just looked silly.  The rest of the cast of Ironclad doesn't have quite the same problem.  While many of them looked nice, there wasn't much acting or characterization.
You'd think something cool was happening here, but no
James Purefoy is the lead in this film, but he doesn't do much.  He starts out as a reluctant warrior, winds up fighting, and grimaces his way through a love interest.  Kate Mara treats Purefoy's acting as a gambling bid, seeing his grimace and raising awkward motives and terrible dialogue.  The supporting cast is fairly noteworthy, but none of their performances are.  Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Jason Flemyng, and Mackenzie Crook are all welcome sights in a lesser-known film, but their parts are shallow and their screen time is limited, forcing the actors into well-trodden stereotypes the audience can understand without requiring anything like acting or character development. 
Example: Crook was referred to as "Gareth"
On the bright side, I thought Jamie Foreman was decently entertaining in his limited part and relative newcomer Aneurin Barnard wasn't completely obnoxious as the idealistic youth.

Ironclad is not a complete waste of time, though.  Director Jonathan English may not have shown any skill in making me care about the fate of any of these characters and he may have co-written a script that is not terribly accurate from the historical perspective, but he did manage to do this:
Yes, that's a hatchet splitting a skull like an overripe melon.  That's not all the ridiculous violence Ironclad has to offer, either.  Hands, feet and a tongue are all forcefully removed from their owners in this film.  There is even a scene where Jamie Foreman severs a man's arm and then proceeds to beat the man with his own arm.  There's a lot of what you might expect in a castle siege fight sequence (stabbings, arrows, tar, loss of life and limb, etc.), but even the typical fare is pretty decent.  Perhaps English's greatest achievement is that he gave the battle meaning by explaining the strategic significance of it.  At one point, John's top Dane gets annoyed that he is wasting his men on this little castle and wants to move on, which seems totally sensible.  Not only did English do a good job of giving the heroes a reason to fight and die for that castle, but he also had John explain why the bad guys needed to fight and die for the castle, too.

But is that enough to recommend Ironclad?  Uh, no.  A movie like this doesn't need to have witty banter or a well-written supporting cast, but it does need two or three important elements: a hero you root for, a villain you love to hate, and/or a romance that you give a damn about.  Purefoy's character isn't charismatic, he just seems weary, and that's a tough lead character type to watch. 
This is his "I'm glad we're having pie" look
Giamatti acted well enough as John, but his hair and the obviousness of some of his schemes (like the promise he made to the Danes) were just ridiculous.  And Kate Mara...her character is married to Derek Jacobi, and yet she spends her entire siege time intent on forcing Purefoy to break his Templar vows and have sexy time with her.  Sorry, Ironclad, you are zero for three.  Still, the action is pretty good, and the warfare felt authentic to the time period.  Plus, I learned a new use for pigs; they truly are a magical animal.  I wouldn't say that Ironclad is good, but it's halfway decent entertainment if you like battles and don't want to invest much emotions into the characters.

No comments:

Post a Comment