James Purefoy goes on a roaring rampage of revenge Puritan-style in the beautifully brutal Solomon Kane.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS AND OTHER NASTY BEASTS!
Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is a cruel, amoral mercenary in service to England, circa 1600. His bloodlust and viciousness have marked his soul for damnation, but when the Devil’s Reaper comes to collect, Kane swears off violence and vows to follow a path of peace. Eventually, Kane falls in with the Crowthorns, a puritan family led by patriarch William (the late Pete Postlethwaite). When the soldiers of the evil sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng) slaughter the Crowthorns and kidnap eldest daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood), William tells Kane that if he saves Meredith, he saves his soul. Taking up arms once again, this time in service to destroying the evil that plagues the land, Kane sets off to rescue Meredith and end Malachi’s reign of terror.
Solomon Kane was created by Robert E. Howard, the man who gave the world Conan the Barbarian. A film version of Kane’s exploits was in development literally for decades. Although it was made in 2009 and released in Europe in 2010, it’s just hitting North America now, first as video-on-demand and later as a theatrical feature. However, don’t let that somewhat sordid history fool you. Solomon Kane isn’t a cheap straight-to-DVD quasi-feature or a studio burn-off. It’s a full-tilt, cinematic film that really deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Getting ready for his North American tour.
Writer/director Michael J. Bassett hasn’t adapted any of Howard’s Kane stories for this film, although they may be addressed in future films (like everything else, this is the first of a planned trilogy). Instead, Bassett gives Kane a kind of “Issue 0” origin story. That’s probably for the best, as Bassett largely avoids the pulp fiction fixings of Howard’s stories and focuses instead on telling a serious tale of redemption and decapitation. Sometimes in that order. There’s nothing campy or pulpy about Bassett’s Kane, and in this case, that’s a good thing. Bassett fully embraces the serious side of the character, and his dedication to it is palpable. Kane isn’t Conan, and the character isn’t as well served by the fantasy spectacle as the Cimmerian is.
To that end, Bassett has given the film a highly realistic, if extremely monochromatic palette. 1601 England is a desolate, rain-soaked, plague-ridden place. There seem to be more ruins than buildings, and the only colors seen are the fires of torches and Meredith’s dress (although it’s still a muted earth tone). Bassett realizes that the cinematic version of the 17th century typically gravitates to the more fanciful, but Kane’s homeland is a gritty, dangerous place. However, the look of the film never feels oppressive or overdone. In fact, it adds some highlight to the story arc, as most of the characters themselves are composed of shades of grey.
We’re going to need a bigger hat.
The film is helped by the fact that it has a highly capable lead in James Purefoy. Purefoy is adept at both emoting and dismembering, and he gives a strong, committed performance. His Kane is a multi-layered man and not just a dour vengeance machine. The action scenes give Purefoy a chance to show off his athletic abilities, and the fights themselves are never over-edited or confusing. In fact, they’re often as brutal and nasty as the fighting itself. While Kane does possess a graceful fluidity in several of his sword fights, he’s arguably more adept at a cruder, messier brawling. It’s an extension of Kane himself, a man dedicated to higher ideals, but unable to fully remove himself from the bloody battles of his past.
The film largely focuses on Kane in an almost first person way, so most of the supporting cast gets little development time, since they’re almost never shown unless Kane is on screen. In fact, Malachi himself doesn’t show up until the climatic battle at the end of the film, since that’s when Kane first meets him face to face. Aside from a handful of scenes, everything is filtered through Kane’s viewpoint. Since Kane never bothers to find out why Malachi is trying to conquer the land or what his origins are beyond being a priest that made a deal with the Devil, the audience doesn’t know, either. It’s a little frustrating to only get the plot through expository dialogue of other characters, but at the same time, it’s a nice change of pace to be left a little in the dark. It certainly helps anchor the film in a very compelling way, making Kane a narrative surrogate for the audience.
Kane has obviously put skill points into two-weapon fighting.
Even though he doesn’t show up until the final act, Jason Flemyng does a lot with the little screen time he has as Malachi. He’s appropriately wicked, his face tattooed with what very well may be Malachi’s contract with Satan. He never fights Kane directly, which makes logical sense since Kane is a warrior and Malachi isn’t. That means that Kane ends up fighting an endless array of other villains that include Malachi’s lieutenant, the Masked Rider, and a giant hellspawn that unfortunately looks like something left on the cutting room floor of Wrath of the Titans. It’s the only time the film’s effects look truly dated.
The rest of the cast is hard to gauge since they have such little screen time, but Pete Postlethwaite is typically solid as William Crowthron, while Alice Kirge is equally good as his wife Katherine. At the least, it’s interesting to see the woman made famous as the Borg Queen shift gears to play a Puritan goodwife. Rachel Hurd-Wood is a great damsel in distress, although Meredith is stronger than she looks. While she initially seems to be smitten with Kane prior to the horrible events that put the plot into motion, there is thankfully never a forced romantic connection. Other cameos in the film deserved more time, such as Max Von Sydow as Kane’s father Josiah, Mackenzie Crook as a demented priest and Phillip Winchester as a young, idealistic freedom fighter. Since the film is so much tied to Kane’s viewpoint, though, it would have been awkward giving them more time, which is a bit unfortunate.
It’s all over your face.
While highly enjoyable and well-crafted, the film starts to fall into a few cliche traps as it gets closer to the finale. Kane’s face-off with Malachi’s hell-born titan seems remarkably out of place with the film that came before it, and a plot twist that comes late in the story is imminently predictable to anyone with a knowledge of genre films. The film makes efficient use of its runtime, but it still seems too short. Minus the closing credits, which take up nine minutes, the film is only a little over 90 minutes long. However, the credit sequence is pretty interesting, with the names of the principal characters first displayed in Enochian, while a stylized Kane continues fighting in the background.
Bassett’s next feature, which he also both wrote and directed, is the next entry in the Silent Hill film series, and given his firm, visceral grasp on Solomon Kane, that bodes well. Solomon Kane amalgamates action, drama, horror and fantasy into a unique hybrid that thrives on all parts at once, while not betraying the core of Howard’s original character. And it doesn’t feel like a video game. It’s more than worth the download as a video-on-demand, but its true home is in the theatre.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
NOTE: Solomon Kane is currently available to rent or own in North America through iTunes. It is scheduled for theatrical release on September 28.
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor who sold his soul to She-Ra.