When it comes to stories that bear transposition to varying eras and settings, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) seems a prime example of a plot that never seems to get old.
It was the basis for the classic American western, The Magnificent Seven, and the less classic (but still enjoyable) Battle Beyond the Stars, a cheesy 1980 sci-fi action film that featured a script by John Sayles (and included Robert Vaughn as a nod to Magnificent Seven).
Still, some variations simply aren't worth the effort. Exhibit A: Ironclad, a kind of Braveheart version of the same plot, set in post-Magna Carta England.
The backstory is thick and, for a post-literate viewership, probably off-putting because writer-director Jonathan English thumbnails the British history that led up to King John signing the Magna Carta. Turns out the barons and the Knights Templar teamed up to force John (played by Paul Giamatti) to sign the document limiting the king's power to act at will and establishing laws of the land for free men.
In this telling, John is pissed - and so starts a revenge tour of his country, aided by a group of Danish mercenaries, killing off the barons and knights who twisted his arm to give up some of his powers. His plan is to simply kill them all and take his powers back.
Escapees from his early attacks get word to Albany (Brian Cox), the top baron in the anti-John coalition of the willing. He teams with a Knight Templar named Marshall (James Purefoy) and they round up a group of other fighters - mercenaries, scoundrels and the like - to take and hold the castle at Rochester. It's apparently a strategic obstacle to John sweeping back to London and imposing his will once again.
And that's the first 20 minutes of a long, long two hours. The time is split between gruesomely bloody action and clumsy, plodding dialogue - about everything from the castle-keeper Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) and his resentment at becoming a political pawn of Albany to Marshall and his vow of chastity (while he's being seduced by Kate Mara, as Cornhill's bored wife).
The action mostly serves to whittle down the Chainmail 7, one by one, as they hold off King John's assaults on the castle. There's a great deal of hacking off of limbs and heads, arrows through necks, that sort of thing. Skewering with swords and spears seems like small potatoes when Marshall can wield his broadsword and cut a man in half - from top to bottom, not side to side.
Cox is always an entertaining actor and Giamatti handles the screaming, eye-popping villain's role with gusto. Purefoy smolders and self-flagellates convincingly as the killer with a soul. But the script is so sodden and the action so agitated and fragmented that Ironclad simply seems like so much swordplay silliness. I've had tenser times watching my kid play a video game.
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