It’s taken the British film industry a long time to banish the muddy imagery of Monty Python And The Holy Grail from memory before reapproaching the medieval swords and sandals genre, which comes as a surprise regarding the current movie climate’s apparent urgency for swashbuckling melodrama. James Purefoy, star of last years similarly blood and mud soaked medieval actioner Soloman Kane and HBO’s Rome lends his suitably charcoal growl to Jonathan English’s bloody retelling of the Battle of Rochester Castle in 1215, a pivotal event in the demise of the rulership of King John.
Purefoy (a sort of grizzled mixture of Gerard Butler and Viggo Mortenseno) plays Marshall, a Templar Knight who on the brink of completing his service witnesses first hand the treaty defying tyranny of King John (a scenery crunching Paul Giamatti) and holds up in the strategically pivotal Rochester Castle with a band of sword happy rebels including Brian Cox’s noble Baron Albany, Jason Flemying’s axe welding Beckett and Jamie Foreman’s cackling criminal, Coteral. With the aid of a disposable Dutch army comprised of hairy Charles Manson look-alikes, the King attempts to sack the seemingly vulnerable defences of the castle and slaughter the tiny party of resistance inside.
The disposal cast of standard Brit faces (mainly distinguished by their type of battlefield weapon) don’t rear too far from stereotypes and the romantic involvement of Kate Mara’s baroness Isabel with the conflicted Marshall is merely deadweight on a story that doesn’t cry out for any extra dimensions. Purefoy once again proves he has the calibre to carry a film confidently, his approach more likened to the growling, rugged action stars of yesterday than the soft, method acting leads of today. Unsuprisingly, its Giamatti’s attention robbing presence that provides the film with the slanted dramatic focus, shared by the Bond films where OO7 would be awkwardly out acted by whoever played the villain.
English’s film will never break from solid Saturday night entertainment mould, but when it comes to directing the film’s staggeringly authentic battle scenes he will be an auteur sought after for many a Narnia and 300 sequel. The film’s combat is an appropriately blood thirsty cycle of hacking, slashing and bludgeoning all played out in thick mud and gushing rain; almost like a Glastonbury mosh pit. Refusing to leave much to the audience’s imagination, English dunks us right in the centre of the conflict as blades lurch in and out of focus and claret splatters like the result of a grenade tossed into the canned spaghetti aisle at a supermarket. Themes of socialism as an alternative to sovereign rule are hovered over and never probed, but criticising a film that’s tagline reads ‘Blood. Will. Flow.’ for it’s lack of depth could be somewhat futile.
Purefoy’s strong leadership against Giamatti’s cement handed villainy has enough edge and seriousness to prevent this from ever sliding into campness and the brutally exhilarating battle sequences demand attention in a way that a standard Hollywood telling probably would deny (the film credits 18 executive producers, making it the largest independent production of 2010) making it solid yet shallow popcorn fare. Jonathan English however is notably a name to watch, his skill at balancing budget, style and fearlessly brutal action will surely make him desirable property in years to come.