“Ironclad” might be the perfect actioner for gorehound fanboys gaga for medieval trappings, but all others may find this British-American-German co-production a bit of a drag. Nothing if not ambitious with its busy battle sequences and CGI fireballs and a wannabe-deep script that mulls over the first stirrings of democracy during the reign of King John (Paul Giamatti, wearing a crazy coif), “Ironclad” tries hard but can’t quite lift the sword from the stone. Sophomore outing for helmer Jonathan English (“Minotaur”) opened wide March 4 in the U.K., but will sink into ancillary quickly thereafter, where it will do fine.
Prologue lays out how in 1215, Giamatti’s King John is forced by rebellious feudal lords to sign the Magna Carta, which effectively undermined his absolute power and is still revered today as the cornerstone of English common law. But the king isn’t happy about this, and sets out with a mercenary army led by Viking Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich) to wipe out the barons who co-signed the document. Taking control of Rochester Castle, in what is now contempo Kent, will give him complete control of the country.
A proto-democrat of sorts who tartly describes the king as “a tedious little man,” Baron Albany (Brian Cox) mobilizes a team of men to help defend the castle until the French send reinforcements. His core of seven less-than-magnificent-but-at-least-adequate heroes includes battle-shocked Knight Templar Marshal (James Purefoy), newly back from the Crusades; greedy hard man Becket (Jason Flemyng); unsubtly monikered marksman Marks (Mackenzie Crook); and, along with a few more disposable others, idealistic pretty boy Guy (Aneurin Barnard), in what might be termed the Orlando Bloom role.
The seven hole up at Rochester Castle, home of Baron Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) and his much younger, dangerously comely wife, Isabel (Kate Mara). King John and his band of hairy men besiege the castle, prompting a number of impressively staged skirmishes involving boiling oil, swordsmanship, fake blood, severed limbs (at one point used as weapons), and post-rendered image-shaking to give the combat that jittery “Saving Private Ryan” look that’s become an action-pic cliche.
Helmer English and his team have clearly taken pains to emphasize the brutality of 13th-century combat, the hardship of life in a besieged castle and the acutely religious sensibility that permeated the era. (“Damn your Templar vows!” shouts Isabel when Marshal refuses to break his vow of chastity). Like Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” “Ironclad” strives for a revisionist brand of realism that emphasizes historical roots.
Unfortunately, Scott had a vastly greater budget at his disposal (“Ironclad’s” was allegedly around $20 million), and so despite English’s best efforts to build real sets and siege towers, pic still looks a little cheap somehow. Auds watching it may not be able to avoid thinking of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” despite the fact that “Ironclad” is fairly humorless throughout, and bedeviled by long stretches in which nothing much happens at all.
Patchy perfs range from merely wooden (Purefoy, Crook) to amusingly manic (Flemyng) to flat-out bonkers (Giamatti, but who at least looks like he’s having fun hamming it up). That said, the fight choreography — achieved with a mix of thesps and stand-ins, no doubt — is impressively springy and athletic, and ably enhanced by a sound mix that’s skull-shattering in every sense.
Lensing by David Eggby (“Mad Max”) has effective stylized moments, but the unrelentingly gray palette proves wearisome over the long haul. Pic at least scores highly with its management of space, making it easy at all times to follow what’s happening where in relation to other events. Blend of sets and Welsh locations is similarly seamless.