Even before its opening narration has finished, we’re told who Ironclad’s dastardly villain is and the opposition he’s up against. That wouldn’t be particularly surprising were it a fantasy movie, but it’s a bit off-putting in a film based (rather roughly) on historical events. Unfortunately, the lack of nuance or complex characterization in the first few moments is typical of Ironclad, which is far more interested in the machinery of warfare than it ever is in the people behind the weapons.
Paul Giamatti stars as a shrill, wholly unlikable King John, now ousted from his throne by the British barony and intent on regaining what he considers his rightful throne. He allies himself with the Pope and a group of pagan mercenaries, thus allowing the film some casual bigotry against his easily despised gang of murderers. A small collection of his enemies camp out in Rochester castle and from here the film simply documents this siege, going into great detail about each move that’s made by both him and the dirty dozen-esque group of warriors assembled against him.
The biggest downfall of Ironclad is that its action sequences, which are clearly the main reason why anyone was interested in making the film, are so frenetic and choppily edited that it’s difficult to get a glimpse of what’s happening. A shot lasting more than three seconds is rare in these sequences, and while care is put into differentiating all of the warriors fighting in the siege, they’re all stock characters. With the exception of a baron played by the always enjoyable Brian Cox, no one makes a real impression.
While the fights themselves are only passable, no other narrative will tell you as much about siege warfare as Ironclad. So much care is devoted to this, though, that the rest of the screenplay is filled up with genre cliches. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a medieval-flick cliche that isn’t deployed in the film. From the warrior fighting for God to the damsel in distress trying to win his love, it’s all in there as if the screenwriter is checking genre requirements off of a list.
Ironclad is never particularly terrible, and the way its spent its budget on recreating its medieval setting through careful construction rather than CGI is commendable. But most of the movie is so bland and has such a lack of passion for characters or story that it makes you wonder why anyone cared enough to make it.