Ironclad, a medieval adventure film released in 2011, corralled a noteworthy cast: James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Kate Mara, Derek Jacobi, Paul Giamatti, Charles Dance. The same can’t be said for Ironclad: Battle For Blood, a grisly, humorless, tension-free, badly shot slog of a sorta-sequel—in the Bourne Legacy “Meanwhile, elsewhere, also this!” sense—though it does (phew!) manage to retain the services of original Ironclad director Jonathan English.
This is of interest primarily because of the film’s villain, Maddog (Predrag Bjelac). It’s 1221, and he’s leading a group of Celtic raiders who are probably pretty sick of hearing him go on about avenging the rape and murder of his wife and daughters, though he’s more engaged with avenging his his son, who dies while innocently attacking a fortress, unprovoked. Maddog is in the habit of shouting “Engliiiiiisssssshhhhhhhh!” at castles he’s about to storm. Perhaps he’s just requesting a sidebar with his director? Maybe he has some helpful suggestions, like, “Try shooting what are meant to be quiet, subtext-packed dramatic moments in something other than the queasy handheld style used for the endless, undifferentiated battle scenes”? Maybe he has some ideas for small, revelatory character moments that could give the audience some, or any, sense of who these people are, or why their struggles matter? There would seem to be time for that in a 108-minute film about marauding Celts in Braveheart facepaint who attack an English castle, then attack it again, then attack it some more. Never give up! Never stop fighting until the castle is sacked, and all within it raped and/or beheaded! (This moral felt more inspiring in Rocky, somehow.)
In the first battle, the lord of the manor makes the mistake of offering mercy to the raider Maddog, Jr. For his softheartedness, he sustains a gruesome wound that results first in the amputation of his arm (depicted as lovingly as the arm-removal scene in 127 Hours), and eventually his death. Grimacing from his sickbed, he dispatches his son, Hubert (Doogie Howser-era Neil Patrick Harris lookalike Tom Rhys Harries) to fetch his badass warrior nephew, Guy The Squire (Tom Austen), to help defend the castle.
Guy is apparently haunted by his experiences in the Siege Of Rochester five years earlier, as dramatized in Jonathan English’s wildly popular medieval epic Ironclad (2011). Guy was played by Aneurin Barnard in that movie, but PTSD has now transformed him into the permanently smoldering Austen, whose entire body appears to have been cloned from one of Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows. Or maybe his sexiness upgrade comes from the fact that, like Rick Blaine or Han Solo, he’s just in it for the payday now. He makes poor Cousin Hubert hand over his purse before he’ll accompany him home to save his kin. Along the way, they recruit some other muscle, including an executioner (Andy Beckwith) and the multiple murderess Crazy Mary (!!) (Twinnie Lee Moore) he was about to execute, before Guy showed up to buy her life.
This plot synopsis makes Ironclad: Battle For Blood sound awesome, which it is not. Instead of finding suspense in the tactical nuances of close-quarters combat—something Snowpiercer, for example, does well—English keeps the camera moving all the time, resulting in battle scenes as disorienting and inept as the ones Gary Ross cooked up for The Hunger Games. And instead of investing in the quirks of its squad of doomed and damned warriors, in the tradition of great band-of-brothers movies like The Seven Samurai or Predator, English goes for fake remorse, dropping the sound out of his scenes of slaughter and scoring them with mournful violin music. There’s even a bizarre time-lapse cut where suddenly, without a break in the fighting, it’s winter. Whether this is a continuity error or an artful attempt to suggest that carnage is eternal is unclear. The effect worked much better in that great tracking shot from Roger Michell’s Notting Hill, wherein Hugh Grant walks along, lonely and heartsick, while the seasons around him change and Bill Withers sings “Ain’t No Sunshine” on the soundtrack.
The sumptuous production values and stirring performances that make the equally brutal Game Of Thrones so irresistible are nowhere in evidence in Battle For Blood, which has all of Thrones’ savagery, but none of its mystery. It does, however, have Michelle Fairley, who played Catelyn Stark on GOT for three seasons. As in that role, she doesn’t get to do much more than pace around worrying about the menfolk and urging caution upon everyone, but she does it with as much grace and gravitas as any actor could muster. “Look at yourself, Dear Nephew, and tell me that a piece of you has not died!” she implores Guy at one point. Just a piece? Look around you, lady. There are loose body parts all over this filthy castle.