Jonathan English’s blood-drenched "Ironclad" is basically a retelling of "Seven Samurai" bolted on to the real story of how England’s King John laid siege to rebels at Rochester Castle in 1215. Like the Japanese original and the western version, "The Magnificent Seven," it involves a septet of heroic warriors who defend a community against a merciless tyrant and his band of killers.
Much of the history is broadly right, but the film is a gore fest aimed at indiscriminate action fans. Those interested in learning more about goings on in medieval history will probably find the splatter tedious and off-putting.
Historians have attempted recently to show King John in a better light, but here he’s an outright villain filled with resentment that he has been forced to put his seal on the Magna Carta, through which feudal barons meant to limit the power of the king by law. Paul Giamatti plays him in a permanent bad mood like a man who is always served Merlot when he ordered Pinot Noir.
The American actor gets his English accent right, though, and his frequent rants are convincing enough. Brian Cox plays the rebel leader, called Albany in the film although his real name was d’Aubigny, which gives a clue to the complexity of the times and the involvement of the French.
With John on the rampage, the Norman castle at Rochester on the River Medway becomes of vital strategic importance. So Albany rounds up a stalwart band to defend it. James Purefoy is Marshall, one of the Knights Templar, sort of the Steve McQueen role, and Aneurin Barnard plays an untested young squire, with Jason Flemyng and Jamie Portman also along for the ride.
In a script by English, Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool, there’s the requisite scene of the leaders of the pack acquiring the team, another in which the tough guys are given the chance to leave but elect to stay and one in which one of the group visits the enemy’s camp.
Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance add their noble tones to the proceedings and Kate Mara is on hand for a romantic scene or two with the reluctant Marshall.
Mostly, though, it’s about battle scenes with a siege that might remind some of Monty Python and the Holy Grail although the bloodletting is not done for laughs. John’s sadistic nature is reflected in the way men’s hands and feet are cut off and in the way he has the castle keep set on fire from the foundations using live pigs because their fat burns at a high temperature.
Director English (Minotaur) and cinematographer David Eggby (Mad Max) go for bleak realism with murky images and editing intended to speed up the time it takes for axe to meet limb. The overall look reflects a small budget with most of it spent on prosthetics and a Foley mix that is deep, moist and jarring.