Gory film proves to be royally funny
Some of us live for bad movies like “Ironclad.’’ An attempt to re-pot the chest-heaving macho martyrdom of “300’’ to 13th-century England, Jonathan English’s gory account of the Barons’ War and the siege of Rochester Castle in 1215 is manly enough to give a moviegoer the giggles. As history it’s bunk; as inappropriate historical fiction, it’s awfully close to comedy.
How inappropriate? Aside from the cognitive dissonance of a medieval action film shot almost entirely in shaky-cam, there’s the wonderfully ridiculous sight of Paul Giamatti as the tyrannical King John of England. His face afflicted with some kind of furry red mange, Giamatti is about as British and royal as my Aunt Ethel, but he gives great entertainment value as he waxes apoplectic about the divine right of kings.
Things aren’t going at all well for John when the film opens. The British nobles have forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the first step on that long, wacky voyage to constitutional democracy. In response, the king hires an army of pagan Danish mercenaries and tries to recapture his own country. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Dance), stalling until the French arrive, orders a hardy band to hold Rochester Castle and keep the king preoccupied.
Ay, a hardy band to hopefully put you in mind of magnificent sevens of movies past. Led by the bearlike Baron D’Albany (Brian Cox) - sorry, no such person of that name existed, though there was a Baron D’Aubigny - the crew includes cynical Beckett (Jason Flemyng), naïve young Guy (Aneurin Barnard), hulking family man Wulfstan (Rhys Parry Jones), deadly bowman Marks (Mackenzie Crook), and lunatic Jedidiah (Jamie Foreman). Who comes up with these names?
The movie’s hero is the strong, silent Knight Templar Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy), who wields the biggest, um, sword in Christendom and who wrestles mightily with his attraction to the castle’s hot young baroness, Isabel (Kate Mara). As the siege stretches on and food runs out, Isabel’s ability to remain buxom and impeccably waxed for weeks on end is a tribute to England’s proud noblewomen.
“Ironclad’’ - the name makes as much sense as anything else here - appears to take place before the invention of the tripod, although there are a few splendid long shots of the castle, computer-generated mock-ups that wouldn’t fool a 5-year-old. The battle sequences are handheld and extra-bloody, and the film’s idea of realism is to show you exactly what a large battle-ax can do to a man’s skull. Hands and tongues are lopped off, torsos split in two, and at one point a combatant picks up a severed arm lying on the ground and beats an opponent with it.
Ah, well, it’s probably just a flesh wound. The problem is that “Monty Python and the Holy Grail’’ ruined this sort of movie for a lot of us almost four decades ago, and it has stayed ruined. Isabel is Zoot by another name, and as soon as a head pops up over a battlement, you expect some ripe French taunting or at least an airborne cow. No such luck. The genre’s not dead yet, but on the evidence of this rip-snorting, predictable, and very silly movie, it’s breathing hard.