James Purefoy sword-washes the bad taste of Solomon Kane out of our collective mouths with Thomas Marshal, a hardcore motherfucker.

Ironclad is a balls out and violent movie in a genre I think we should call Hardcore History. It isn’t quite an historical epic, its scope is much too small for that and it takes liberties of course, but it does bother to deliver the versimillitude we might expect from such a movie. It belongs in the same category of less expansive movies like Centurion or Black Death which are a great counterpoint to the Big Ones like Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven or last year’s deplorable Robin Hood. The reason we should call movies like Ironclad Hardcore History movies is that, like certain HBO shows I could name, they are just as concerned with blood, tits, and old school heroism as they are about politics, period detail, and thinly veiled parallels to current events.

Ironclad is actually fairly involed with its context. It takes place around the same time as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, containing portrayals of a few of the same figures and centered on the creation and consequences of the Magna Carta. In Ironclad, King John (a ferocious and scenery-chewing Paul Giamatti) has decided “fuck this shit” and hired an army of Danes to take out all the Barons who forced him to sign away his Divine Right of Kingship, a move which the Pope has denounced. Now the old rebels are caught divided and only one of them reacts quickly enough, with the help of a few buddies and a Templar named Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy, who is fucking awesome in this movie and acts as the chief protagonist). Albany (Brian Cox) is an old soldier and a tough, loyalty-inspiring bastard. He gathers a band of merry men to hold Rochester Castle, a key stronghold, against John and his Danish mercenaries.

The Danes emerge from the mists, as Danes are wont to do.

What follows is a long siege between the 20 or so men defending the castle and John’s 1000-Dane army. In between the heightened violence, which is really one of the big draws here, are various storylines that explore both the historical context and the characters involved. The story is actually fairly strong for its attention to detail. Centurion is a good point of comparison and has a vastly weaker story. There’s nothing in this movie out to reinvent the wheel, it’s mostly trying to offer some well-told, if familiar stuff. There are a few misfires or spots of silliness, which I’ll get into, but mostly it’s a welcome attempt as this was not the kind of movie where they needed to bother. I mean, the battle scenes are so well done and just ridiculously violent, that the movie would have been entertaining even without the extra thoughtfulness.

Ironclad is mostly about Marshal, who is a gifted warrior tired of all the years of killing he’s done in the name of God. Now he’s here fighting one last battle to avenge his comrades murdered by John and possibly to finally fight for a worthy cause. His story is basically about the soldier returning home haunted by the spectre of war and all his sins. It’s fairly classic and pretty on the nose regarding Britain’s role in the Middle East. I’m sure the idea was that British soldiers would get some of the same kinship with Marshal as American ones do in similar stories a bit more geared to them.

Isabel is fascinated by Marshal as a man of violence as much as by his inner turmoil.

The interesting bits come in when Cornhill (Derek Jacobi), the castellan of Rochester’s wife takes a special interest in Marshal. At first she is interested in all the fucked up shit she’s heard about Templars. To her, Marshal is an enigma and when she tries to learn more, he recoils. It’s a nice touch, really, that he is the opposite of suave with the ladies, of which he probably knows very little about. There are a couple of great scenes where he shows just how uncomfortable she makes him, let alone his own feelings. Isabel (Kate Mara) is a third Cornhill’s age and it’s clear that she doesn’t get any. The movie allows her interest in Marshal to be very complex, based not only on her sexual response to his brooding, capable essence but also on her increasing rejection of social mores, including the religious vows that chain Marshal to his Order, the violence, and even his chastity. These scenes help justify what would, in any other movie, be a completely obligatory romance. I was very impressed that they handled this so well considering that, when it became apparent that the movie was “going there”, it cranked the dial down a bit.

Other familiar arcs include Guy’s as he’s a squire who dreams of glory but has never been in a battle. The events at Rochester are sort of his coming of age and he is maybe meant as sort of an audience vehicle, but he’s not a great character and the way Marshal sort of looks out for him isn’t well-justified though it’s easy to imagine that the screenwriters pictured it as a relationship where Marshall saw something of himself in the kid and so fucking on. It’s solid, like I said, but nothing special and the aspect of the story that annoyed me most though it by no means marred my enjoyment.

At first, Guy is a pretty shitty fighter. By movie’s end he is still reckless and untrained but a bit less of a pussy.

The other characters get similar, but lesser treatment. There’s Becket (Jason Flemyng, recently playing Azazel in X-Men: First Class) who gets off on fucking and his own anger. He’s a character who should have pissed me off more, especially when he delivers one of the worst lines in the film when another character asks him why he’s so angry all the time. “I’ve been angry so long I don’t remember why,” he says. The other guy laughs at him, which saves the moment. However, Becket is awesome in spite of this. I think maybe it’s cuz he just doesn’t give a fuck. It’s also cuz he’s a total badass, running around with his fucking battleaxe and bending castle bitches over tables. He is the most rock ‘n’ roll character in the movie. Which is a pretty rock ‘n’ roll.

Albany’s other company include Big Tough Family Man and Loyal Archer (played by Mackenzie Crook who played Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean). There’s also Crazy Rescued Criminal and Brave Captain of the Guard. They don’t really need to be any more than their action sequences and the one or two sentences of description that no doubt ran along the same lines as how I’m describing them, but they all get at least one nice moment to make us care about them just enough to give weight to the battles. This is the kind of attention and effort that movies which cost hundreds of millions of dollars often skip over. I’m sure Ironclad cost a pittance compared to something like Robin Hood and yet manages to somehow come off as a bigger and miles better movie.

That’s Becket in front there. That is his intensity face.

The action in Ironclad is mostly brutal fights on the castle walls where 20 men try to hold off 50 times their number. Luckily, in this kind of fighting, numbers don’t count for everything. Because Marshal is really experienced thanks to the Crusades, he is able to mount a pretty good defense. The others have to rally around his combat leadership as much as on Albany’s unwavering dedication to the cause. Without this, how the hell are we supposed to believe in the awesome action scenes enough to enjoy them?

And they are truly awesome. Shot with a just enough shaky-cam to create that visceral effect that is so often chased and so rarely caught, they include some truly brazen gore (arms, faces, heads, hands, and so on get chopped the fuck off in this movie all the time) and really great little moments for each character whether it’s Marshal holding off eight guys with his greatsword or one of his buddies beating a Dane to death with another Dane’s severed arm. Even though I’ve seen tons of movies that border on gleeful with their commitment to “realism” in violence, I still sat forward in my seat several times during Ironclad in excitement and amusement. It had the capacity to impress and surprise, which creates that nice vicarious satisfaction that only the best violence does.

May I present: Greatsword Porn.

Now a little time to talk about the performances. First there’s Purefoy who has proven to be a lesser used gem thanks to various movies and particularly his role as Marc Antony in Rome. Somehow, though, he has never risen to the heights of other British actors known for similar type of work. Guys like Sean Bean or, looking to Australia, Russel Crowe. Purefoy was made for movies like Ironclad but he has also spent time in shit like Solomon Kane. Whatever actorly sins he has committed, it takes a special kind of guy to sell the overwrought brooding, tortured soldier thing but Purefoy does it, and everything else, without breaking a sweat. His supporting cast are similarly great, most of whom capable of this work in their sleep. Jacobi, Cox, Mara, Flemyng and even the other grunts we sort of get to know, are all good. So is Vladimir Kulich as the oddly-named Tiberius, captain of John’s Danish troops. Kulich is most famous to movie geeks for his awesomeness and for playing Buliwyf in The 13th Warrior. His laconic vikingness is a principle asset of this movie and in Ironclad we get a sweet chunk of it amidst all the other great shit.

My specially favorite performance came from Paul Giamatti, though. For most of the movie, it’s like “what the fuck is he doing here?” and it just seems like bizarre casting. Then his army finally cracks Rochester open and he gets to look his enemies in the eye and all kinds of insane comes out, along with some surprisingly effective introspection.

John is nuts but you don’t really get to see that until this moment. Even Tiberius is like “whoa buddy”.

Then there’s this great shot where John confides some deeply self-aware reflections about how he got here to hulking Tiberius, who is still like “whoa buddy”.

All in all, as I like to say at the end of reviews, Ironclad is a pretty awesome little movie. It’s very entertaining, has a great mix of character beats and rah-rah Magna Carta historical context, and all that amazing battlin’ to coast home in. Where the movie missteps is in some relatively minor things. It doesn’t quite earn the ending it has for a few of its characters, the attention to tactical detail is abandoned whenever a character needs to do something heroic, and it makes no sense whatever that Isabel and her whore-buddy are as good of fighters as they wind up being when push comes to shove. They’re ultimately little things, even the ending which might rankle with some people. It’s in the same sort of “what?” range as the ending of The Eagle but closer to acceptable due to the deftly handled development of Marshal and Isabel’s relationship.

Ironclad is my favorite type of movie to review. A movie where I don’t expect much, have my socks blown off, and know isn’t going to be in heavy exposure for most people. I get to have fun revisiting everything I loved, insist that the flaws are minor, and evangelize about it to whoever reads this blog or hears me talk about movies. It’s the kind of movie that informs why I do this in the first place.

And it’s in probably my favorite genre of movie, if I can be said to have one. You shine on, Purefoy, you crazy diamond.