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Movie Review: Ironclad

Directed by Jonathan English
Starring James Purefoy, Paul Giamatti, Kate Mara, Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Vladmir Kulich, Charles Dance, Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook, Aneurin Barnard, Jamie Foreman
Release Date: June 8th, 2011

The name Jonathan English may not mean jack squat to you now, but after you see his latest film, Ironclad, you’ll remember it for goddamn sure. English is the writer (with Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool) and director of this latest entry in the medieval action genre that has gotten a major adrenaline fix recently with the success of the HBO series A Game of Thrones and the literal onslaught of blood and steel battle epics like Neil Marshall’s Centurion and Christopher Smith’s Black Death.

Armed with a tight script, a fantastic cast ready to chew scenery and kick ass, and buckets of blood and severed limbs, English saddles up to take on that hoariest of cinema sub-genres that’s easiest to do if you have little funding to work with: the siege movie.

Having beaten off the stench of rotting career that his last film, the craptacular Sci-Fi Channel “original,” Minotaur (starring a young Tom Hardy), English turns his attention to an episode of British history when a handful of brave warriors stood tall against the corrupt will of a power–mad king.

An opening narration sets the scene: in the year 1215 King John of England (Paul Giamatti) was rebelled against by his barons and forced to sign the Magna Carta, the document that granted freedom for all those who lived under the British crown. But apparently he had his fingers crossed the whole time because now John is assembling an army and tear-assing across the country, killing all those who supported the Magna Carta and taking their castles for himself. Bolstering his numbers is a legion of Danish mercenaries led by Tiberius (Vladmir Kulich). One evening a group of Knights Templar, warrior monks who stood with the barons and fought against King John, arrive at a caste seeking shelter. The next morning John and his army arrive at the castle to hang its baron and all those who stand opposed to him when the Templar Knights, led by the stoic Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy), engage John’s men in armed combat. Only Marshal escapes the castle alive.

Making it to the castle of Canterbury Marshal meets up with the baron Albany (Brian Cox), and with the blessing of Archbishop Langdon (Charles Dance, who also narrates the story) they agree to take a small army of their own to the castle of Rochester, lorded over by the aging Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) and hold off King John for as long as possible until the French can provide assistance in the form of a new (and hopefully better) monarch. Among their small force are: Becket (Jason Flemyng), whose taste for blood can only be equaled by his taste for fine women; Marks (Mackenzie Crook), an archer reduced to working for a butcher during his downtime from battle; Guy (Aneurin Barnard), Albany’s young squire who is untested in battle; and Coteral (Jamie Foreman), a sleazy scoundrel who hasn’t yet encountered an opponent he wouldn’t gladly treat to a painful demise while laughing all the way.

Imagine a low-budget, Roger Corman-produced rip-off of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, only way better, written by John Sayles and directed (and rewritten) by Walter Hill. That’s Ironclad in a nutshell right fucking there: a hardcore heavy metal medieval war movie that pumps with the clenched fist fury of a 1950s Sam Fuller B-movie epic, and the twisted and gritty aesthetic of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western with an Exxon tanker truck full of Tom Savini’s special red Crayola blood mix and a mighty pair of steel-plated balls big enough to stove in the head of a bridge troll thrown in for good measure. This is one of the best pure action movies we’ll see this year, an old school throwdown between the noble, the insane, and those who are a little bit of both. This is the clash of blood and steel that so many other flicks before it tried to be. Pretenders they can now all be called, because Ironclad is the real deal.

Working with a budget of approximately $25 million, English couldn’t afford the massive CGI armies and gigantic widescreen scope of a major studio production. Good thing too because it affords him the opportunity to get down and dirty with the story, staging impressive battles with fewer extras than you could find senior citizens enjoying the breakfast buffet at Golden Corral on a Sunday morning. This isn’t about spectacle, it’s first and foremost about character. The siege movie has always been one of my favorite action sub-genres. I love seeing a small group of underdogs outnumbered and outgunned by a sizable force with only a few weapons and a very steady wall to see them (mostly) safely to the end. One of the earliest and best was John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), a movie whose influence can be seen in every siege movie made since, from Zulu (1964) to even the original Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ironclad, like Zulu, has the extra benefit of being based on historical accounts, although I’m positive that more than a few liberties were taken in the name of creating a great action-drama. It doesn’t really matter; I don’t see scholars of 13th century British history rallying around this movie and crying for it to be taught in university courses. Ironclad is not that kind of movie.

It’s not a pretty movie either. There’s mud, blood, rain, and grime in nearly every inch of the film. Director English eschews digital trickery for great effects make-up that provide Ironclad with its gruesome illusions of brutal death, although English can’t resist a few dodgy CGI fireballs here and there. Throats are slashed, arms are chopped off, heads get chopped in half, and as the cherry on this hot fudge sundae of slicing mayhem, Marshal cuts one sorry foe clean down the middle with his sword on the first goddamn try! The details of the siege ring true too: after John’s initial attempts to take the castle fail he instead decides to starve Marshal, Albany, Cornhill, and the others out and the siege goes on for months with their food supply running dangerously low, their morale virtually non-existent, and that dastardly bastard John savoring every moment of their misery like the finest meal ever made by human hands. Ever wanted to see a building reduced to rubble by the power of burning pig fat? I doubt you have, but if so you’ll get your chance here.

There are plenty of fantastic performances here to enjoy as well. A few years ago James Purefoy was originally cast as V in the film adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s acclaimed comic book miniseries V for Vendetta, but shortly after shooting began he was replaced by Hugo Weaving. I thought that was a blessing in disguise because I had seen Purefoy in a few films and although I didn’t think he was a bad actor he just didn’t strike me as someone who could turn into a man of action when needed. Between Ironclad and Solomon Kane I’ve had a change of heart about the dude. Purefoy can kick ass and act his ass off with the best of the big screen He-Men. He plays the valiant Templar Knight Thomas Marshal as a man haunted by the person he once was and the person he could yet become, drawn between his sense of duty and his simmering attraction to Isabel, the repressed trophy bride of Cornhill played by Kate Mara in a touching performance. Marshal finds his devotion to his faith and duty challenged by the fiery Isabel and the chemistry between the two is often palpable.

My favorite character in the supporting cast was the baron Albany, a role that the great Brian Cox has an inhibited ball ripping into. Albany is a certified badass who may be quick with a sword as he was in his youth but that won’t stop him from taking up arms in a time of battle, and while he may have lost a step in his combat skills his mouth is as quick with a witty remark as ever. I love the actors playing the mercenaries Albany employs to hold the castle until reenforcements arrive because for most of them playing good guys, or at least soldiers for hire being paid to do good deeds, is a mighty change of pace. It’s a kick to see Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class), Mackenzie Crook (The Office), and Jamie Foreman (Layer Cake) as blood-spilling men of war who never show fear in the face of their enemy. As the squire Guy Aneurin Barnard has a fully realized character arc that the young actor is more than capable of playing to create a three-dimensional human being out of what could have been a stereotypical role. Veteran Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi (Dead Again) brings a lot of that Old Vic tragedy to his somewhat cowardly baron Cornhill. The ever watchable Charles Dance (Gosford Park) does solid work as the besieged Archbishop Langdon.

Every character in this movie feels complete in a strange way, even if we don’t know that much about them. What details are left out by the screenplay is filled in admirably by the actors, another reason why this movie stands tall over most modern sword-slashing historical epics that believe spectacle always takes precedent over character. Fuck that bullshit. Tell that to directors like Anthony Mann (El Cid) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus). The greatest surprise in the cast for me was Paul Giamatti as the vicious King John. Giamatti is one of our finest living character actors, able to play cynical comic artists (American Splendor) and sadistic action flick baddies (Shoot ‘Em Up) with the same level of craft and dark aplomb. The role of King John is an ample opportunity for the actor is strut his stuff and he manages to create a first-rate villain full of malevolent fury and imperial arrogance but far from being a Snidely Whiplash-type of sniveling baddie.

There’s not much more I want to say about Ironclad for fear of spoiling the rest of its treasures. This is an awesome medieval war epic full of blood and steel and packing some of the best action scenes and ensemble acting you’ll see this year.

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