Ironclad Blu-ray Review
This US edition of Ironclad comes with its correct 2.35:1 screen ratio intact, unlike the cropped atrocity of the UK release. Now, I haven’t seen the UK disc but I can imagine how this idiocy would wreck the brutal widescreen glory of what Jonathan English and his DOP were striving for, what with massed charges, scenic compositions of ships against a coastline, wonderful frames of the castle and of the enemy hordes advancing through an eerie dawn mist.
We are in the land of desaturated colours and high contrast. This is a very stylised and earthy presentation. Browns and greens are the primary concern of the aesthetic. But blood does come a very close third … and provides the emotional focus of the image. Now, we all know this visual trend inside-out by now. We've had the similar look and feel of Saving Private Ryan and the more silvery/metallic sheens of War Of The Worlds and Minority Report, and then there's the likes of 300 with its overtly post-production accentuated image. Here, the film has been on captured mostly with Panavision Genesis HD and Canon D5 cameras, and the resulting image is pretty much bereft of grain, but this is not meant to imply, for one moment, that any DNR has been applied. Detail is actually quite fantastic and highly defined, with close-ups and backgrounds, and everything in-between, looking beautifully crisp and sharp, and the picture boasting a fabulous level of depth. Though I would say that Ironclad is perhaps hindered in attaining its full and authentic look by a transfer that magnifies its stylistic choices. I, personally, think this AVC encode ups the contrast too high, blows out the whites too much and downgrades the depth of the blacks to the picture's detriment. This isn't to say that the film looks bad on this disc – because that is not the case, this is a brilliantly detailed image that can, at times, appear quite astonishing – but just that the filmmakers' design ethic is compromised by the encode seemingly enhancing these elements all the more.
On TV at the moment there are a clutch of commercials that all have their contrast ramped-up far too high. When you suddenly go from a normal and pleasing image to one of these – it's jarring. They look so hideously faded and hazy that I'm struggling to fathom out how they were allowed to go out like that. Now Ironclad is nowhere near as bad as these examples, but I did find myself reminded of them as I watched the film. Blacks simply aren't strong enough. There is good shadow definition, yes, but no tangible depth to the darkness. Shadows look diluted and grey. Jonathan English states in his commentary that the colours were only slightly desaturated and that the look of them is fairly close to how they were actually shot. Well, I don't entirely buy that. Whites are definitely blown, with lots of glaring highlights visible, even on faces. He says he boosted the colours of the costumes, King John's especially, but they still seem stripped of vitality to me. Some flags and ensigns, and the flames of the explosions, lamps and fires look appropriately vigorous and bright though.
On the digital front, there's a problems too. But not major ones. There's some slight ringing, although this is more to do with the photography, the lighting and nature of the silhouettes against this bright white background. But there is some banding going on, which manifests its ugly self during a couple of the fade-in, fade-out scene transitions. It's quite obvious and horrible too. There is also some aliasing taking place, although this is slight and shouldn't be a problem.
No, the main issues, for me, the ones that I am more constantly aware of, are the glazed-over contrast and the seriously compromised black levels - but I'd take them over a botched aspect any day. Otherwise, this is a fine and highly detailed image that certainly keeps up with the action and packs a visual and visceral punch.
Wow – this is good stuff, folks!
Ironclad receives a punishing DTS-HD MA 5.1 track to complement its pounding and excessively violent visuals.
With finely presented and expressive use of the surrounds, this gains enormous mileage out of the severe bombast of the battle scenes. Bass is great, and it often travels like a thunderclap, front to back, with smirk-inducing alacrity. We have the impacts of the missiles hurled from the catapults, the tumbling of blasted masonry, the thudding of bodies heaved off the battlements, and the crashing down of the walls of the keep. There is keen presence and floor-trembling power to these fiercely detailed effects, but you can hear little incidentals within the cacophony – which is what makes it so realistic. Crank up the volume and audio-adrenal junkies will be in ear-bashing heaven. The bang and clash of steel on steel is also extremely well handled, with smart directionality, the all-important sense of weight and a nice level of metallic clarity to all of the individual scraps. The snap and sizzle of arrows loosed by Mackenzie Crook also sound great, and once again there is some decent steerage afforded them that genuinely whips and whizzes around the soundfield.
Subtle effects, such as clanking chain-mail, footsteps on floorboards and upon stone steps, the creaking of timbers and ropes, and the detailed impacts of steel blades thudding into wood … and, of course, flesh … are all rendered with clarity and a definite attention to authenticity. The hand-lopping scene in the third act reveals the detail of such incidents. But we can also hear the scattering of wooden splinters or shattered stone, the sound coming at you with gusto.
The rears are brought into action a lot. They carry score-bleed and ambience – both natural and battle-oriented – and supply a good and consistent level of noticeable activity. The stereo spread across the front is likewise active and detailed and wide. The score issues forth without any overt desire to pummel you with its doom-tinged tones or its choral majesty … and this is how it should be. Composer Lorne Balfe and Jonathan English bed the music in the mix so that it perfectly underscores the action, rather dominate it. Ordinarily I like the music to be even more up-front than this, but it naturally depends on the type of the score, itself, and this hits the right balance. Dialogue is well prioritised too. Even during the most intensive confrontations, full of people screaming, clashing steel, shattering stone and percussive score beats, there is no problem whatsoever discerning what it being said.
With a film like this, you would demand an aggressive audio track that was up to the challenge of immersing you in the midst of the war-zone … and this one certainly delivers the goods. A very strong 8 out of 10. Almost an unofficial 9!
We don't get much here, and this is a definite pity. The film was cruelly overlooked at the cinema, and its got one messed-up release in the UK, and here we find only a commentary track from Jonathan English and the film's theatrical trailer.
The chat-track is actually very good indeed. English is scene-specific and quite detailed in his chronicle of what it took to breathe cinematic life into his pet project. Naturally he covers some of the real history of what he is depicting, as well as how he struggled to make the film look and feel as authentic as possible. He talks about the violence and how necessary it was to depict it with absolute realism, and he mentions the films that influenced him as a child and as a filmmaker. He is very technical about the how things were done, though, which some people may find a touch off-putting. We don't learn tremendously much about the actors or the shoot, itself, but we hear about all the matte paintings, the digital trickery, the use of a single flight of steps over and over again, the various sets and locations, the weather, the cameras being used and about the visual style of the film. Oh, he does cover the stunts and the fight choreography too. Well, I enjoyed listening to this track and I think that he did a grand job with the film too.
I loved Ironclad. This was the film that I couldn't wait to see at the flicks after the sporadically interesting Roman adventure, The Eagle, but was then forced to wait for its arrival on disc. And basically I wasn't disappointed. Jonathan English delivers a senses-pummelling medieval action flick that recognises the greats that have gone before, most notably The Warlord and Braveheart, but reins in the epic qualities of such adventure-odysseys to a short, sharp shock of unyielding siege and battle set-pieces. On a limited budget, he achieves miracles. The visual effects, asides from a few dodgy pots of flame flying through the air, are quite wonderful. The matte paintings and digital integration are nigh-on faultless.
But Ironclad will certainly be remembered for its brutally punishing skirmishes. The hack 'n' slashery is jaw-dropping at times, and makes for a wild and often wince-inducing experience. Then again, nobody is coming to this movie expecting a genteel period pastoral, are they?
On Blu-ray, the film has a few problems. But this could also be a case when the transfer has only attempted to follow the visual intentions of the director and his DOP a little too over-zealously. Whilst the detail is often highly impressive, blown-out contrast and banding knock the image down a bit though, I'm afraid. But the audio is full of all-round, room-shaking excitement and the battle mixes are superb. A lack of extras is shameful, however. Although it should be noted that Jonathan English does provide a fine and detailed commentary track.
Compared to the UK release, this is a no-brainer. The region-free US disc wins hands-down. Ironclad is a lustrous and often breathtaking widescreen movie … and to see it any other way would be a sin.
Ironclad does exactly what it sets out to do. It transports you to a time when fighting for a cause meant having to cleave your opponents in two whilst skating-about on a slick of spilled guts.
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