There’s nobody better than Akira Kurosawa. That’s not a debate, incidentally. You can argue (incorrectly, in my opinion) that the man had equals, but there is no convincing case that he had superiors. This is the man who invented the buddy cop genre, who made the defining laconic badass movie, and is responsible for the plot of Star Wars. In many ways, Kurosawa’s catalog is the cinema equivalent of the Bible: directors have based entire careers on portions of Kurosawa films. Most importantly for me, and for this week’s Now Fear This, Kurosawa directed The Seven Samurai.
Quick sidebar. If you haven’t seen Seven Samurai, stop reading right now and go watch it. You’re welcome. You can watch the rest of his oeuvre at your leisure. When you’re done, you’ll understand all of film history, mostly because he invented all of the good parts.
After watching Seven Samurai, you might have noticed that it felt a wee bit familiar. Maybe you saw that it had the exact plot of Three Amigos or was eerily similar to Galaxy Quest. Maybe you’re kind of slow and thought, “Hey, that’s The Magnificent Seven!” Congratulations, you’re all correct, and those are three more great movies everyone should see. Simply put, Seven Samurai has one of the simplest, yet most satisfying iconic plots of film history. It’s about a group of awesome badasses, each with a gimmick to define him against the others, defending a group of helpless people — and teaching them to fight at the same time — against a superior enemy. It also kicks so much ass, it can’t legally be in the same room as Kim Kardashian or the world will explode.
That brings us to this week’s Now Fear This, the 2011 swords and armor epic Ironclad. It’s totally Seven Samurai and there are absolutely zero things wrong with that. We’re all suckers for certain kinds of stories, and this is one of those for me. You get a movie about a group of badasses doing badass things for badass reasons, and you have my undivided attention for the next 120 minutes.
In this case, the action is set in England in the year 1215. This was back when the chief activity of most people was dying of a lingering affliction. The film gives us a bit of a history lecture (playing fast-and-loose with history to the point that TV Tropes has it listed as alternate history, but who cares, right? There are warhammer murders to watch!). The barons have just finished forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta, which is a super important document in western history. It’s basically the first time anyone thought to tell the king that he couldn’t be an asshole all the time to everyone. It asserted the rights of a tiny group of extremely wealthy white men and absolutely no one else, so if you’re keeping track at home, it’s literally the only document in history that is still upheld today. Still, John is totally butthurt about it, and he decides he’s going to take his hired army of Danish auxiliaries (not mercenaries, and yes there is a distinction) and systematically slaughter every baron who signed.
The problem is, on his first stop, he happens to run across a group of Knights Templar, led by an abbot, who are spending the night at the castle of one of the signatories. The Templar, who had fought for the barons, are done with the whole fighting thing. Well, until John orders the tongue cut from the abbot’s head. Then we learn why the Templar stopped killing: they are too good at it. Seriously. Three Templar, led by our hero Thomas Marshal, head down to the courtyard unarmed, then begin to slaughter Danes with their own fucking weapons. It is seriously awesome. Eventually the Danes are like “oh yeah, three guys versus an army,” and kill two of them. Marshal gets away and vows the mother of all ass-whuppings on King John.
The linchpin to John’s success is Rochester Castle. If he takes that, he gets all of southern England and a clean path right to London. Marshal recruits a group of misfits, led by the battle-hardened Baron d’Aubigny, and go to defend Rochester Castle against King John. It’s twenty men against a thousand, and those twenty guys are also handicapped by lugging around their massive balls. Then the badassery starts. I don’t know that this movie was made; it might have been cut from the chest of a screaming berserker. This movie is what happens when a broadsword has an orgasm. All I want to do is describe every incredible act of violence, but I can’t do that without all my action figures and sixty gallons of plasma.
The cast is also surprisingly good, especially as I don’t recall Ironclad getting a theatrical release. As the lead, Thomas Marshal, you have James Purefoy, who is generally known for being the best part of whatever he’s in. This is a strange role for him, since he has to tamp down on the devilish charisma that makes him such an appealing presence, but it totally works. The great Brian Cox is d’Aubigny, Derek Jacobi is Baron Corhill the master of Rochester Castle, Charles “Tywin Fucking Lannister” Dance plays the sympathetic Archibishop, noted That Guys Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook are two of the badasses, Kate Mara is Isabel, the baron’s wife, and Paul Giamatti is King John. It’s the last two — the Americans — that are the problem. Nothing against Mara or Giamatti, especially the latter who is one of my favorites, but they are a bit out of place. Giamatti tears into the role, his accent hovering somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic Trench. His trademark exasperation, though, is kind of funny in the mouth of the king.
Mara’s character is a little more problematic. She does fine work here, but the film crawls to a stop whenever it focuses on her. She’s the much younger bride of the baron, and he’s not doing his husbandly duties (something you should probably expect when marrying Derek Jacobi). She realizes that James Purefoy is in her castle, and as I assume happens whenever James Purefoy goes anywhere, she decides she’s going to get her some of that Templar gold. (That’s the term, right? The kids are saying that?) It’s adding runtime the film doesn’t need, and serves only to reassure the audience that Marshal isn’t a virgin, because real men aren’t. See, Marshal is an original recipe Templar, which means he is quite literally a warrior-monk. He’s taken vows before god not to go to Pound Town. She gives him the traditional happy ending (no, not like that) as well, which doesn’t jibe well with the previous two hours. Still, it’s a small complaint, and not one that does much to sour me on what is otherwise such a great action flick.
Ironclad is nothing you haven’t seen before, but there is no shame in doing a classic story well. It is well worth the time of historical action fans, especially those who enjoy pointing out some of the more egregious cases of artistic license.