Only the fake-blood expenditure has been upped in “Ironclad: Battle for Blood,” an anemic sequel to 2011’s medieval slay-’em-up “Ironclad” that visibly scrimps in all other departments, from casting to effects to any semblance of humor. Essentially repeating its predecessor’s castle-siege narrative — minus the vague historical basis this time — writer-director Jonathan English’s dank-looking film delivers enough amputations, decapitations and other instances of rusty-bladed gore to distract undiscerning genre fans stuck between seasons of “Game of Thrones,” but serves no other obvious purpose. Granted a far smaller U.K. release than the first film back in March, the film now enters theaters Stateside after an initial VOD bow; if there’s any further life (or flamboyant death) in this franchise, it’ll be in ancillary only.
Unlike “Ironclad,” which notionally told the story of the 1215 siege of Rochester Castle, the sword-and-sackcloth drama in “Battle for Blood” (set six years later) is entirely fictional — which would contribute to a general sense of lowered narrative stakes even if the storytelling weren’t so desultory. Gone, too, are any characters of equivalent consequence to King John, played with lunatic relish by Paul Giamatti in the first film, or actors of equivalent presence to play them. The biggest star in the sequel’s ensemble, arguably, is “Thrones” alum Michelle Fairley, given little to do as the simpering wife of ailing English nobleman Gilbert de Vesci (David Rintoul), who finds his castle in Scotland under attack by local Celts.
It’s a situation ripe for brash, “Braveheart”-style political rhetoric, which would be oddly pertinent in 2014, with the Scottish independence referendum looming, but the script, by English and Steve McDool, pays no mind to the bigger picture, with the bloodlust mostly motivated by soapy personal grievances. The Scots’ leader, Maddog (Predrag Bjelac), seeks revenge for the death of his son; from his deathbed, Gilbert responds to the threat by sending his own baby-faced boy, Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries, giving the film’s most appealing performance), into the breach, instructing him to track down his cousin, hardened mercenary Guy de Lusignan (Tom Austen), to help hold down the fort.
Guy is the one returning character from the first film, though you’d be forgiven for not realizing: The sculptedly handsome Austen cuts a very different figure from Aneurin Barnard, the role’s previous inhabitant. Once he enters the scene, backed by a trio of murderous renegades, the film falls into a repetitive routine of consistently brutal showdowns. They’re so alike in tone and staging that the eventual faceoff with Maddog hardly feels climactic, while the domestic squabbles within the castle — among them a wan romance between Guy and another of his cousins, Kate (Roxanne McKee) — add little interest.
Further underlining the sense of familiarity, English (whose surname, incidentally, matches the script’s questionably justified allegiance in this conflict) rehashes most of his technical devices from the first film. The most prominent and least effective of these is the dropped frame rate intended to lend in-the-fray urgency to Zoran Popovic’s solemnly washed-out lensing, though it’s an affectation that frequently combines with the cut-price CGI to detract from the film’s verisimilitude. Production and costume design on the Serbian-shot production are economically restrained; Andreas Weidinger’s kitschily choral score is anything but.