With its circumscribed footprint, clearly defined aims, and proliferation of antique gadgetry, siege warfare is rife with cinematic potential, as Peter Jackson demonstrated to thrilling effect in The Two Towers. But that potential mostly rests unrealized in Jonathan English’s medieval actioner Ironclad, in which the villainous King John (a puffy Paul Giamatti) tries to seize Rochester Castle from a small band of rebels.
Ironclad has a wobbly basis in history, following the events after John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Here, he seeks revenge on the rebel barons who forced his hand, mustering an army of Danish mercenaries to regain control of the country. Jason Flemyng's solitary knight Templar, loyal to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Dance), rounds up a motley crew that includes an archer (Mackenzie Crook) and wild card Purefoy, and sets his sights on Rochester, whose strategic importance greatly surpasses its modest size.
Although English doesn’t zazz up the sword-fighting in the manner of Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur or Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, it’s clear he’s watched a lot of Braveheart. (Given the timing, it’s likely he didn’t see last year’s Centurion first, but he and Neil Marshall were clearly drinking from the same pool.) The camera swings wildly as swords connect, and blood flows in crimson gushers. Heads split with the fall of axes, and limbs are hacked off and repurposed as cudgels. Purefoy’s man-sized sword splits unlucky foes in twain, their cleft bodies sagging sideways as they slump to the ground.
There are siege engines aplenty, with catapults and castle keeps, as well as a nifty (and historically accurate) use for pig fat. Unfortunately, a narrative needs characters as well as plot, and that’s where Ironclad falls off its horse. The movie’s gathering of third-rank action heroes provides sufficient brawn but precious little onscreen charisma, although Brian Cox’s reliable bluster lights up his handful of scenes as a bellicose baron. Derek Jacobi is wasted in a fleeting part as Rochester’s timid lord, and Kate Mara is stuck trying to bridge the gap between scenes where her character is a fluttering damsel and those where she’s a kick-ass warrior princess. (Call it the Eowyn Conundrum.) At its best, medieval warfare was a squalid business, but Ironclad gets mired in its own mud.