Who the hell is Solomon Kane? Well if you haven't heard of him, you might have heard of a certain warrior by the name of Conan. You know, the Barbarian. Solomon Kane is another creation by the man behind Conan, writer Robert E. Howard. With scant backstory, his turn-of-the-17th Century Puritan character is basically the quintessential stranger who wanders from town to town, country to country, armed with blades and pistols, and with seemingly only one purpose: to vanquish evil in all shapes and forms. Sound like a good plot for a movie? Well maybe it was enough back in the sixties, seventies and even eighties, when even Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood could find success making movies about strangers walking into town and cleaning out the bad guys (Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, the Dollar Trilogy), but these days audiences want more than just a bang for their buck. Films cannot be this simple anymore, audiences want to be spoon-fed the entire back-story to characters, their whole traumatic childhood needs to be revelled in. So what we have here is the ever-popular origin story. Only it is an origin story for a character whose origin was never actually revealed by the author in any of his original books. With fans in uproar over the blasphemous implications of this, the question is, does this movie give us a nice introduction to the beloved character? And for newcomers, does the movie even make it worth finding out who the hell is Solomon Kane?
A British mercenary waging War in North Africa, Solomon Kane leads his motley crew to overrun a fortress town but soon discovers a roomful of demons and the Devil's own Reaper: intent to take Kane's soul, which has been damned by all of the atrocities he has committed. Fleeing Africa, Kane finds sanctuary in an English monastery, and vows to give up the evil life he used to lead, and never kill again. But when the daughter of a Puritan family whom he befriends is captured, he finds that he once again has to tap into those violent instincts, only this time hopefully on the side of right.
Fantasy fans who know and love Howard's books will have followed the cinematic interpretations of his work in a multitude of films across the decades: from the aforementioned Conan to Red Sonja and even Krull the Conqueror. For them, there have been some concerns raised about the accuracy of this interpretation of the character; about the filmmakers making up an origin for this loved hero. They clearly wanted Clint Eastwood striding along à la Pale Rider. But that time has passed. And honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Solomon Kane is a decent enough mid-to-low-range-budget avenging angel flick, with a nice, moody setting, and a suitably grim central hero. The production feels has more in common with the Lord of the Rings movies than with Eastwood's classic man with no name personifications: Kane displaying a hint of Aragorn; its villains led by a sorcerer and a demonically corrupted Nazgul lookalike. However, although that comparison works in its favour, particularly for a modern audience, Solomon Kane is still quite a distinctive tale in its own right.
James Purefoy, attempting to find his footing in Hollywood after his pivotal role in the excellent TV production, Rome, emboldens his interpretation of Solomon Kane with enough determination and angst for him to make for a decent avenging angel. Sure, he plays to his strengths here: his character given a nasty, evil streak at the outset (not found in the books), and never really fully shirking his damned soul until the final act, but it works well for Purefoy, who would have perhaps found it harder to play a 'good' guy right from the outset.
There are a few other memorable faces in the mostly British cast: the distinctive Pete Postlethwaite (Brassed Off) playing the father in the Puritan family, the scene-stealing Max Von Sydow (Flash Gordon's Ming) as Solomon's father, the persistently weasely MacKenzie Crook (the UK Office) as an eccentric priest, and the somewhat typecast Jason Flemyng (Benjamin Button) as the evil sorcerer. The only slightly incongruous face is that of Rachel Hurd-Wood (Dorian Gray) who, then 17 years old, does not quite look young enough to play the role of the Puritan daughter, with whom Kane's relationship is clearly intended to be entirely platonic.
Upcoming young Brit Director Michael J. Bassett, whose first two movies - both indie horrors - were necessary stepping-stones to get to a project like this, has fashioned a nice little atmospheric action-thriller in Solomon Kane. Considering the $23 Million budget, he really worked wonders to make this a solid, stylish production: dark and broody enough for more mature audiences, and with occasional, but always cleverly utilised effects which seldom betray the limited funds behind them. He strips things down to the bare essentials story-wise, which allows him to make what could have otherwise been a stretched-too-thin B-movie with an A-movie plot, into a more stylish origin story which merely sets the stage for further, potentially more expansive instalments. This is like the pilot to a decent TV show: seldom perfect, but with some promise as to what may come in the future. And, depending on Box Office performance (which hasn't been too bad), it may just get the sequels it needs to tell the story that the fans want.
I think it is quite a hard task to be lumbered with a character who is both loved by ardent fantasy fans and also unknown by many of the general population: you have to create a movie that appeases both. And without enough funding to stage large parts of the movie in Africa (as was the setting for some of the key Kane events from the books), an origin story - even if it required a fictional origin to be created - was the most logical choice. I have to say that, personally, I found the narrative strikingly reminiscent of the early Van Damme effort, Cyborg (an atmospheric piece about a wandering mercenary who has to save a girl from some pirates), with even some pretty memorable moments from that little-known 80s piece getting replicated here, but it is perfectly possible that that is coincidence (or maybe Cyborg was trapped in the recesses of Bassett's brain when he came up with this).
This is no Mad Max, nor does it have the scale or substance of something like Lord of the Rings, but it has much more in common with these movies than those it unfortunately often gets associated with. I've even heard people talk about Van Helsing in the same sentence. Hell, if Bassett had done Van Helsing, it may have actually been quite good!
With plenty of throat-slicing, head-lopping brutality, the origin of Solomon Kane is a decent enough action-thriller with a suitably atmospheric period setting (complete with nice touches like the strange plague-doctors), effects moments that do not stretch beyond the budget allowed, and focussed performances all around. Driven by successive, increasingly brutal, action set-pieces, we follow Purefoy's angry avenging angel as he hacks, slashes and shoots his way through hordes of normal humans, possessed humans, undead, and demons. I don't know if they will go on to tell more true-to-the-book Solomon Kane stories in future, but this is far from a bad place to start.
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