When they named ’em the Dark Ages, brother, they weren’t kidding. The medieval action film “Ironclad” shows England in the period just after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, a time of violence, pain, and death. The setting and milieu recall “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” without all the jokes. There is one scene in “Ironclad” where a guy beats another guy to death with a third guy’s severed arm — something so ridiculous it could be funny — but it’s not played for laughs. In other words, if you’re in the market for a movie where a guy beats a man to death with a severed arm in a completely non-ironic way, your search is over.
The setting may be “Holy Grail” but the story is “Seven Samurai” with a dash of “Rio Bravo.” King John (Paul Giamatti), furious at having been forced to sign Magna Carta, takes systematic revenge against the Barons who imposed it on him. Baron Albany (Brian Cox) decides to mount a rebellion at the strategically advantageous Rochester Castle in southern England. There he and a tiny band of freedom fighters — including a Templar knight, a master bowman, a cynical mercenary, a crazed thief, and a wide-eyed squire — must hold the castle keep until French reinforcements arrive to enforce the charter. The odds are long to impossible and the battles are bloody.
Oh, how they are bloody. The will of the King may be clad in iron, but the action sequences are drenched in blood; so much blood that fans of extreme horror might prove an unlikely but appreciative cult for “Ironclad” and its endless array of gory kill shots. The film pulls no punches in depicting the awesome (and gruesome) sacrifices these men of history made for their beliefs. But even though you might appreciate that sacrifice, you still might not want to watch multiple dudes cut in half the long way (which is really the tougher and nastier of the two ways to cut a dude in half). There’s lots of slo-mo and juiced-up sound effects, and characters tend to pepper their fights with tough guy poses and one-liners, which suggests the battle scenes are intended as thrilling entertainment. But there’s more viscera than visceral excitement, and director Jonathan English takes a shaky, handheld, heavily edited approach to the fight sequences. Whole battles feel comprised exclusively of quick, blurry close-ups of swords and men’s entrails.
Far more to my liking are the scenes between the battles, and the performances by Giamatti and Cox, both clearly having a blast with the opportunity to put on a Prince Valiant wig and some chainmail in order to bellow lines like “You’re no more a king than the boil on my ass!” English and co-writer Erick Kastel’s screenplay is full of nuggets of juicy dialogue like that, and Giamatti makes a wonderfully evil King John, the same one from many versions of “Robin Hood.” Here he’s less the sniveling John of the Disney cartoon and more “I AM THE BLOOD! I AM GOD’S RIGHT HAND! NOW CUT OFF HIS FOOT!” but it’s working for him. Unfortunately Giamatti and Cox spend most of the movie on opposite side of an enormous castle wall, limiting the amount of time they can chew the scenery together, or rather demolish the scenery with enormous catapults of manly charisma.
The bloody, ampu-tastic deaths in this movie are expertly done. Maybe too well done; “Ironclad” walks a very fine line between showing the high cost of freedom and exploiting it. No doubt one of the film’s fans will soon compile all its goriest moments into a YouTube clip celebrating the impressive mayhem. But I’d rather watch a highlight reel of Giamatti and Cox going at it, or a version of “Ironclad” that had a lot more of them in it. They bring enlightenment to a dark film.