1215. Having been forced to sign Magna Carta, King John (Giamatti) imports Danish mercenaries to punish the barons who humiliated him. William de Albany (Cox) recruits Templar Thomas Marshall (Purefoy) and a band of rebels to defend the strategically important Rochester Castle against the King.
This blokey mediaeval mini-epic picks up the chronicle where Ridley Scott dropped it at the end of his Robin Hood, and plunges into the juicy politicking of the Barons’ War as a vindictive monarch tries to take back England from upstarts who have made him grant unheard-of liberties to the people. Then, it defaults to borrowing from the classic action movie template: whiskery Baron Brian de Cox, modelling a fetching chainmail cardigan, and noble Templar knight Sir James of Purefoy, who even has a heroic horse, trot about muddy stretches of the country recruiting old friends. Archer Mackenzie Crook, criminal Jamie Foreman, whoremonger Jason Flemyng and a few others sign up to defend Rochester Castle; according to Wikipedia, several hundred rebels held out during the siege, but Ironclad slims down the number to a traditional Magnificent Seven.
Having perfected dour sword-swinging in Solomon Kane, Purefoy solidifies his manly rep as the near-mystically empowered warrior monk — it’s plain from the first sight of the winsome lady of the castle (Kate Mara) that his vow of chastity will be broken by the end of Act Two — and Marshall sets about defending Rochester in much the same way Patrick Swayze ran a bar in Road House. Writer-director Jonathan English, previously best-known for the SyFy Channel ‘original’ Minotaur, saddles a solid cast with too many duff lines (someone actually says, “It’s too quiet out there” just before a surprise attack), but it’s physically a convincing picture of brutal times. Paul Giamatti is a terrific villain, delivering angry speeches about the divine right of kings with fist-waving and beard-chewing while his Danish sidekick (Vladimir Kulich) shoulders a hefty axe in preparation for video-nasty levels of highly educational violence. According to King John, it’s not enough that a rebel has his hands and feet chopped off — they then have to be splatted against a castle wall with a ballista.
Though it’s a clanking armour exploitation movie not a History Channel production, some useful facts are embedded in the script. Should you ever be called upon to besiege a Norman castle, there’s a trick with burning pigs which will come in handy.
Like all sieges, this offers moments of choppy terror and excitement followed by dull sit-it-out-and-starve spots. Straddled between uproarious schoolboy tosh and serious historical movie, this still offers enough dismemberments, royal tantrums and portcullis-rammings to make for a lively Saturday night out.