Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ironclad: Battle for Blood (2014)

The Dark Ages. Norman Gilbert De Vesci (David Rintoul) and his wife Joan (Michelle Fairley) are holding a castle in the territory of the Scots clans. A minor raid by Maddog (Predrag Bjelac) and his people ends with De Vesci losing one arm and Maddog’s son losing his life, leaving the Normans without proper leadership and quite a fighter and Maddog with a thirst for vengeance only the destruction of the castle and all who dwell in it will quench.

De Vesci sneaks his decidedly un-macho son Hubert (Tom Rhys Harries) out of the castle to go for his cousin Guy (Tom Austen) – one of the survivors of the siege of Rochester in the first Ironclad film – for help. Alas, Guy has grown up to be a bitter sell sword, and even wants payment for helping out his own family, which Hubert fortunately is able to provide. They grab three random fighters – not exactly mentally healthy murderess Crazy (see?)Mary (Twinnie Lee Moore), executioner Pierrepoint (Andy Beckwith) and Guy’s best buddy Berenger (David Caves), and ride off to help the besieged and frequently attacked castle.

Obviously, most of them don’t look forward to a healthy future, but perhaps something – like the love of De Vesci’s daughter Blanche (Roxanne McKee) – just might at least give Guy reasons for a redemptive character arc. Quite clearly, slaughter and many a slow motion death will ensue before any of that redemption can go down.

Despite the different character of its protagonists’ enemies, returning director/writer John English’s Battle for Blood most of the time doesn’t feel so much like a sequel to Ironclad as much as a remake with a lower budget and accordingly lesser ambitions. So the actors – even the character actors – are a tier lower on the thespian pecking order and on the charisma table than those in the first movie, the script hits a lot of the same plot beats but with less thematic resonance, its main bad guy is less outrageously acted, and the film feels rather more constrained in its locations and sets.

This doesn’t mean Battle for Blood isn’t worth your time, at least if you’re like me and enjoy a good piece of historical pulp adventure, you just can’t go in expecting much depth or a charismatic lead. The best I can say about Tom Austen is that he’s serviceable enough and does know how to strike the right poses during fights, but as he plays him, Guy’s bitterness is as lacking in conviction as is his love interest Blanche in, well, interest. We’re not in the realm of the horrible here, but where better actors gave the film’s clichés a bit more life in the original Ironclad, not all of the guys and girls on screen here ever really manage that, with Danny Webb, Twinnie Lee Moore, Michelle Fairley (who is the most upmarket actor in the film, obviously), and Tom Rhys Harris as the exceptions to that rule. Still, these talking, sword-wielding clichés as such are entertaining enough to watch, and while they never achieve the gravitas some of their death scenes call for, they’re more than enough for the film’s simple siege scenario and redemption tale. As in the first movie, the script also finds some surprising (for a film of this style) space for its female characters beyond Blanche to actually be characters and have a degree of agency; at the very least, Battle for Blood is a film where the existence of warrior women is just a fact of life nobody even finds worth mentioning, and where a gender having less power in general doesn’t mean its members are all damsels in distress.

English also gets bonus points for this time around avoiding to mutilate established historical facts for no good reason, and for not only having an eye for the awesome violence but also at least some of its consequences. The latter aspect might have become its own kind of movie cliché by now – the camera walking the battlefield afterwards while mournful music plays, and so on - but it is at least one that’s broadening the emotional impact and provides a film with the opportunity to not have to demonize its antagonists too much.

When it comes to Battle for Blood’s main attraction, the fighting, English uses a bit more shaky cam than in the first film, I think, probably to hide the fact that this time around there are even fewer men fighting the battles, and there’s probably less money for choreography and too many repeats of scenes as well. It works better than I would have expected because English still manages to focus his audience on what’s actually going on in the fights, the shaky cam more often plausibly mirroring the rush of adrenaline and fear going through the characters. It’s not how I like my fight scenes to be shot, but it works reasonably well for the film at hand, particularly in combination with the sense of ferociousness and brutality of the fights. There’s also a high – some might say needless – amount of gore on display making the fights grittier and a bit unpleasant from time to time, as is proper and well in the world of exploitation movie violence.

All this adds up to a very flawed yet highly entertaining bit of pulpy, mildly exploitative entertainment, leaving Ironclad: Battle for Blood a sequel that I don’t think was precisely necessary yet that I wouldn’t mind seeing again now that it exists.

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