Ironclad review

Horses, swords and an imposing performance from James Purefoy. It's Ironclad, and Duncan found much to enjoy in this historical epic...

After an incredibly uneven start to my cinematic review fodder this year, it’s safe to say that I had put quite a heavy burden of expectation on the firmly built shoulders of James Purefoy. He was, after all, the man that buoyed up my 2010, when I was asked to review Solomon Kane, a film which I’ve spent so many words writing about that I’m sure I must hold some kind of record, such was my commitment to championing the work of a fine British cast and director.

Along comes another great British cast, this time with an aptly named Brit director, Jonathan English, and Purefoy again forming the figurehead of the picture, his bloodied sword clutched firmly in his hand, the words ‘Blood. Will. Run.’ stamped on the film’s’ poster, putting everything in place to create a film I’d love, and did I? Absolutely.

Ironclad is a brutal, exhilarating film that combines historical interest in a little known part of our history, with familiar action movie elements in the very best way. I never tend to divulge too much of a film’s plot, but the core of the story is based around a small group of eclectic warriors holding a castle of vital strategic importance to the cruel King John. Some of the warriors, such as James Purefoy’s Templar Knight, Thomas Marshall, are on a mission of vengeance. Others are simply mercenaries loyal to Baron Albany (Brian Cox). But all of them are aware that the odds are firmly stacked against them.

Essentially, then, Ironclad is a siege movie, but one I was expecting to be modestly shot and almost intimate in its visualisation of war, concentrating on, perhaps, the odd moment of confrontation, while budget dictated that dialogue take up most of the screen time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The film’s production team spent eighteen months raising a relatively modest budget, but what you get on screen are the best battle scenes I’ve seen this side of The Lord Of The Rings.

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Action dominates the majority of the film, with a now familiar vow-breaking by Mr Purefoy, starting proceedings in an unexpectedly visceral and bloody fashion, that had me, literally, close to bouncing in my seat (only stopped by a professional courtesy to the man sat behind me.  When Ironclad comes out on Blu-ray, I fully intend to bounce, probably with extra shouting).

What’s more impressive is that the movie’s onslaught barely gives you time to catch your breath for the first two thirds of the film, making my eyes grow ever wider as catapults, trebuchets and siege towers explode on screen.

Ironclad‘s authenticity is also bolstered by its use of the correct terminology, such as ‘loose’ the arrows, rather than ‘fire’, making clear the director’s love of his historical accuracy, with the word ‘pig’ likely to make most reviews of the film. (I’ll say no more.)

Director English also deserves credit for managing to shoot the hand to hand combat with enough skill to ensure that some elements of the fighting are as frantic as the opening of Gladiator, while others calmly choose to focus in on specific moments of horrific violence, giving them their full impact.

Ironclad is one of the few movies I’ve seen that brings to light the old adage ‘be careful what you wish for.’ I can be a little bloodthirsty in my taste for heroic bloodshed, joking before the screening that I’d give the film a star for every beheading dealt out by Purefoy, only to be confronted with so much gore that even my jaw dropped at times.

It’s a very astute move to bombard the screen with such unflinching depictions of brutality, as more than most other films, it truly manages to convey the sickening barbarism of war.

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It’s that very subject that torments Marshall, in a role that seems tailor-made for James Purefoy, an actor I had really hoped would take up the Bond mantle post-Brosnan, but who has now found his own niche to rule within the British film industry. He’s superb as Marshall, though at times the character is a little too humourless, a balance which is addressed by the awesome Brian Cox, who fills the screen with his usual intensity, along with some fine comical uses of words such as ‘whore’ and ‘piss’ to lighten the tone.

Amongst the extensive cast of British stalwarts, it’s Aneurin Barnard as Guy (the wide-eyed youth) and Kate Mara as Lady Isabel (pulling off a perfect Brit accent) that stand out, as they’re relatively unknown to me, so made all the more impact when surrounded by such rich company.

Elsewhere, Jason Flemyng plays the angry womaniser, Jamie Foreman the Ray Winstone-type character, Derek Jacobi the ineffectual castle keeper, who’s married to Lady Isabel, and in a surprising, yet massively underused turn, Mackenzie Crook, as the cool archer, much in the vein of Legolas, or if you’re as geekily predisposed as me, Crow.

Charles Dance also makes a brief appearance, reminding me all too much how much I’ve missed him on the big screen, much in the same way Hot Fuzz reminded me about Timothy Dalton. (If someone could please sort out this oversight, it’d be much appreciated.)

Paul Giamatti is a divisive actor and his performance in Ironclad won’t help to balance any opinions, with his evil, nasty (and I mean really nasty), spoilt king summoning up the requisite amount of hatred and bile that such a villain deserves. Yet, at times, Giamatti pushes things a little too far, with his spit-fuelled outbursts proving to be incredibly funny in otherwise tense moments. But this may have been an intentional relief for the audience when things get truly vicious. If you liked him in the joyous Shoot ‘em Up, you’ll like him in Ironclad.

Where the films falls down is in its third act, a victim of its own success after keeping the pace up for great lengths of time. Suddenly things grind to a halt and shots seem to linger for too long, as if there was suddenly a fear of cutting any filmed footage. Had the film been paced as a drama throughout, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed. But as an action film, the change in tempo feels a little bloated. Perhaps my adrenalin was still a little too high.

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A definite weakness is the film’s need to force a ‘will they/won’t they’ dynamic between Marshall and Isabel, which is fine to begin with, but after what feels like the tenth encounter, you really want to slap Marshall on the back of the head and encourage him to get stuck in, just to speed things up.

The film can also be a little slavish to the action/adventure formula at times, which didn’t massively impact on my enjoyment of the film, but might well prove a bit of a sticking point for others, especially with the standard band of character miscreants grouped together. Even with my love of such widely drawn stereotypes, there was still a lack of banter and bonding between the heroes, which always helps to draw you closer to their plight. There is some, of course. Just not enough for me.

Nitpicking aside, if you’re looking for a film that delivers some of the most exciting, brutal thrills ever committed to celluloid and all perpetrated by a great cast, you’re in for an absolute treat. I loved Ironclad and when the end credits rolled, my blood was still rushing from the sheer bloody carnage. Just be warned that it’s in no way suitable for those of a squeamish disposition.

It’s a strong, satisfying action film, and trust me when I say that you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen James Purefoy diffuse a hostage situation with a sword.

Ironclad is released in cinemas on the 4th March.

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4 out of 5