As tyrannical King John in Ironclad, Paul Giamatti practically busts a vocal chord delivering an “I am God’s right hand!” tirade to a fallen adversary (all before catapulting the mutilated man’s carcass into a castle wall), thereby providing the sole vigorous moment in this otherwise tedious muck of a 13th-century actioner. Having signed the Magna Carta at the behest of a rebellion led by Baron Albany (Brian Cox), John goes back on his word and, with the Pope’s support, endeavors to reclaim England, a quest that hinges on the procurement of Rochester Castle, which is a supply “keystone” to the rest of the country. Thus, Albany sets about recruiting a ragtag group of warriors that includes noble Templar Knight Marshall (James Purefoy), whose vow of silence has already been broken after witnessing an abbot’s tongue cut out by King John, and whose skills with the sword—originally put to use against John during the rebellion—are second to none. One horse ride across foggy rolling hillsides later and Marshall, Albany, and their motley crew have taken refuge inside Rochester Castle and begun preparing for the coming siege, all while Marshall attempts to suppress his blossoming (and forbidden) feelings for Lady Isabel (Kate Mara), the arranged-marriage wife of the castle’s ruler, Cornhill (Derek Jacobi).
Writer-director Jonathan English drenches his material in grime and gristle—the latter coming via innumerable close-ups of severed limbs, spraying arteries, and other bloody business—and shoots his combat with a blurry franticness modeled after the battles of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. And like most of Ridley Scott’s medieval adventures, his film subscribes to such a stark good-versus-evil setup that it’s devoid of any nuance or suspense. By making John such an unrepentant freedom-opposing monster, Ironclad denies itself any moral thorniness. Furthermore, though it intently focuses on Marshall’s struggle to reconcile his pious duty with his carnal feelings for Lady Isabel, the outcome of his internal crisis is so inevitable, and the script (co-written by Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool) treats its characters with such uncomplicated superficiality, that this strain almost immediately feels like a time-padding diversion.
Alas, there’s plenty of time to pad during this overly long tale, whose structure—in short: team formation, fight, rest, fight, rest, fight, the end—bogs down in unrewarding repetition. A work of misty-moored hack-and-slash mayhem whose technical derivativeness is less troublesome than its narrative simplicity, Ironclad ultimately proves true (dramatically, if not historically) Cornhill’s proclamation that “whatever happens here is meaningless.”