“What a tedious little man!” snarls Brian Cox after dealing-slash-politicking against Paul Giamatti for the hearts and minds of the British peasantry. Far from it, to enjoy Ironclad is to embrace one of the most ridiculous, yet delightful moments of over-the-top royalty since Graham Chapman and the Pythons (clearly a film that Ironclad is subtly nodding at while its plethora of arterial sprays and limb severings, even as it plays everything else decidedly straight.) Giamatti and Cox join a host of celebrated english Capital-A actors such as Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi along to occasionally bark at each other through its orgy of violence. The film is hilarious, yet deadly earnest, the type of bloody heroic wet dream of 14 year olds, with the type of posturing put forth by the WWE or Mel Gibson.
Without missing a beat, Johnathan English’s Ironclad picks up right where Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood left off. It is certainly not an official sequel, but golly, it could be the swaggering, slightly drunken, trashier sibling if you swap in a scowling James Purfoy for a scowling Russel Crowe. King John (Giamatti) has signed the Magna Carta, but at the behest of the Pope in Rome has declared the document invalid and is marching across the land with a small army of Danish mercenaries, killing all the Barons who signed it. In the meantime, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dance), orders one of the few remaining Baron Cox) and the best Knight Templar (Purefoy) in the land and orders them to defend Rochester Castle at all costs. (As Rochester goes, so goes England). Failing to raise an army, only a few ragtag adventurers and scoundrels (from the Office’s Mackenzie Crook to the ubiquitous Jason Flemying who seems contractually obliged to be in all of these types of movies), they arrive at Rochester just as John and his army show up. Thus for well over half of the two hour duration, the film is an action packed castle siege film that pits about 20 men against several hundred, and bravery, blood and battle over anything resembling restraint or good taste.
A romantic subplot is clumsily shoe-horned between the local Lord’s (Jacobi channeling Claudius without the stutter) young and unsatisfied wife, played tediously and far to prettily by Kate Mara and the chaste Templar mainly her stroking his sword, while he hastily tries to put it back into the scabbard. No, I’m not kidding. It’s comedy gold. Why this is going while on a dozen or so survivors are being starved to death by the encircling army both look hale and pretty and movie star like. Mainly though, the Knight Templar wants to stick is sword into swarthy the swarthy Dane (Vladimir Kulich) and there is an epic sweaty tango there, but I don’t think the (t)horny metaphor is on hand for that one. But a movie like this is not aiming to be high art, it is going to entertain with over-the-top acts of heroism and beating the enemy over the head with his own severed arm. On that count, the film delivers in an very old-school, matinee fashion. Sir Brian Cox’s squire upon the witnessing the bloody first defense of Rochester’s walls comments, “Nobody could recover after witnessing bloodshed such this as this.” But when the film earns a few unintentional laughs at the earnestness to which it strives for but never quite achieves, you will likely recover and ask for more! You may even want to gather a few of your movie going mates by your side and some over-sized beers to enjoy the slick carnage. Ironclad is unpretentious entertainment loudly realized by falling on the sword of its own pretentiousness. Somehow by the end of the film it has hit all of its cliche (yet fist pumping) character notes, done everything you might expect of it, only to win you aboard. With David Gordon Green’s Your Highness coming out to take the piss out of this type self-serious fantasy movie, Jonathan English has proven that you can have your cake and eat it too.