Ironclad is an amazing movie. The film is loosely based on some of the most significant events in human history — the signing of the Magna Carta and the subsequent Baron’s War against England’s King John. It focuses its attention on the King’s siege against Rochester, as it is defended by a handful of knights and soldiers in the face of overwhelming odds. It features a spectacular cast: Paul Giamatti, Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, Charles Dance, and Jason Flemyng. It has some gripping, brutal action sequences, and the scenes of King John’s army laying siege are quite remarkable, given the film’s budgetary constraints.
But none of that is what makes Ironclad so amazing. What makes it so amazing is that it has all of those ingredients, and yet it is unquestionably a terrible fucking movie. It is an astonishing stumble… a reeling, unfettered goddamn collapse of epic proportions, and its film makers — writer/director Jonathan English (whose previous credits include Syfy’s Minotaur) and co-writer Erick Kastel (previous screenwriting credits include… um… literally nothing) — deserve some sort of formal recognition for taking a story and a cast with such promise and potential and turning it into an absolute trainwreck of a film.
It starts, of course, with the story. Ignoring the fact that it’s fraught with historical inaccuracy (oh, boy, is it ever — if you have even an iota of knowledge of English history, get ready to lose your mind), the story is rife with painful cliche and authorial laziness. It begins with King John (Paul Giamatti, who somehow manages to overact and be the best part of the film) being forced into signing the Magna Carta, and then promptly throwing a royal hissy fit and rampaging across England seeking revenge against coercers. He’s opposed by Duke Albany (Brian Cox), who goes all Seven Samurai and gathers together — wait for it — an unlikely group of heroes who learn to work together and make a last stand against an army that clearly overmatches them. Yet with a little ingenuity and luck, and the help of their noble hero, the Templar warrior Marshal (James Purefoy), well, guess how it ends. No, really, guess.
The problem, beyond the drab, uninventive Kurosawa ripoff of a plotline, is that it gives absolutely no information, background or history to any of the players. There’s 30 seconds of exposition — just enough to give them each some sort of qualifying trait so you can recognize them under all of the dirt and blood. There’s the aforementioned noble hero, the whoremonger, the drunk, the troublemaker, the rookie, the gruff leader, et cetera, et goddamn cetera. Those traits don’t even matter, since each of them (other than Cox and Purefoy) only have about six seconds of dialogue each. The cause of the heroes isn’t exactly bolstered by the presence of the Lady of Rochester, Isabel, played with vacant-eyed, mouth-breathing incompetence by Kate Mara. Oh, Kate Mara — so pretty! So wooden! So dull! Yet she’s somehow asked to carry the part of the love interest, leading to painfully awkward scenes with Purefoy’s Marshal that are so un-romantic, you’d swear you were watching two blind, dirty, braindead donkeys stagger into each other.
On the other side of the siege is Giamatti as the sneering, domineering, arrogant King John and his army of Danish mercenaries. Danish mercenaries who, just in case you’re wondering, speak Hungarian to each other. Hand to God. Apparently, they’re Danish by way of Budapest. John, his adorable pageboy haircut, and his Hundanisharian lieutenant, the hulking, brutish Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich, who appears to be channeling Stellan Skarsgard’s grunting, lip-curling performance from King Arthur) are some of the most inept battle planners of all time, leading to their army being routinely slaughtered by six goddamn knights, one archer, and a bunch of bakers and shoemakers sitting on top of a wall with buckets of rocks. Fortunately, buckets of rocks and pails of tar can only hold them back for so long, something we should be thankful for since it’s only once they breach the castle that the film gets remotely interesting.
In fairness, Giamatti is easily the best part of the film, even though it’s some sort of overacting competition between him and Cox. But both of them are thoroughly enjoyable to watch, particularly Giamatti’s ten-minute screaming rant towards the film’s end, delivered while furiously dismembering enemy soldiers. It’s quite the sight to behold. The rest of the cast doesn’t acquit themselves quite so well, speaking breathtakingly derivative, banal and cliched dialogue as if they were heavily sedated and then shoved in front of a camera. Which, in the face of such an imposing collection of talents, is the only excuse I’m willing to accept.
What makes the bland performances so shocking is how they contrast against the absolutely balls-out action scenes. They’re a bit over-edited, but overall English is a sure hand when it comes to directing the bloody melees that pepper the film. The fights are nasty and vicious and sometimes almost disturbing in their dedication to gory accuracy. The sound effects are equally impressive, with each limb-severing “thwack!” reverberating through your eardrums. The costume design is impressively detailed, and the attention to details in set design was equally notable.
But the film is just bloody boring. Every single second in between the action scenes felt like a miserable eternity filled with dialogue written by romance novelists who had lost their will to live. It was an absolutely interminable two hours, that was nowhere near salvaged by the action choreography. It’s an utter mystery how they managed to wrangle a cast this talented and then completely neglect them (let’s not even talk about the excellent Jason Flemyng, who has roughly six lines). Ironclad is a monument to mediocrity, a slow, plodding, stupid, soulless, excruciatingly poorly written waste of talent, time and resources. Other than some exciting fight scenes and Giamatti’s sneering ball of bombastic braggadocio, the only thing notable about Ironclad is how completely, spectacularly forgettable it is. In three months, it’ll be as if it never existed, and I’m guessing the actors are all eagerly waiting for that day.