After being kept from North American theater screens for years now (for reasons unbeknownst even to director Michael J. Bassett) Solomon Kane, the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulp-Puritan magazine stories from the early 1900’s has finally been awarded a release. For the most part, this grungy period epic both subverts and embraces its roots admirably, failing mainly when it begins to ponder and attempt the philosophical.
Starring James Purefoy who is best known for his stellar work as Mark Anthony on HBO’s Rome, Solomon Kane takes us on a bittersweet journey of redemption across mid-level Britain as a dark force led by the sorcerer Malachi is recruiting the strong, enslaving the weak and slaughtering anyone in between.
As is the case in both the source material and this adaptation, Howard tells a tale of Earth in the 1600’s where black magic is very real and even more so is the existence of god and the devil, the latter of which quite literally appeared to collect the soul of Captain Kane. His life of senseless murder, plundering, cruelty and greed had left his soul marked for hell and after a narrow escape he instead pledges his life to god, swearing off violence for the hope he can remain a free man as long as possible.
Those hoping for something more akin to Van Helsing (I don’t know why you would be, but let’s play the devil’s advocate) may leave disappointed due to the more ponderous and cerebral approach Solomon Kane employs (a quality that I must admit at a number of turns sinks the fascinating bleakness that makes this film of note). Bassett’s vision could easily be held as a companion piece to 2010’s absorbing Black Death with Sean Bean, a similarly set, godly-themed movie that asks infinitely more intriguing questions (and without the clutter evident in Solomon Kane).
Though the sides of good and evil play a pivotal role in the redemption and motivation of Kane, the mythological elements actually take a back seat to a more straightforward tale of the crusades and the brutal hardships of the era. The bursts of the overtly fantastical can actually come across as jarring after being grounded in pseudo-authenticity for such extended sequences. It would have been supremely interesting if Bassett had chosen to plant his Solomon Kane even more firmly in reality, making god, the devil and their respective minions the beliefs of deluded individuals who blindly believed in who they were serving and not to visualize their forms so concretely. But I digress.
On an aesthetic and technical level, Solomon Kane is universally stunning. Bassett and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen bring this world to vivid life through on-location shooting and confident camera work while also employing special effects impressive for the modest budget. Similarly, the score by Klaus Badelt is boisterous and rhythmic very much calling to mind Hans Zimmer’s score from The Dark Knight Trilogy. Finally, the costume and set design is equally gorgeous matching the quality of any annual Oscar nominee. In spite of its shortcomings, Solomon Kane never looks cheap.
The film’s biggest failing, even above its tonal and self-reflective faults, comes with the limp finale that is frankly insulting. After a number of impressive skirmishes in which Kane dispatches hoards of enemies with ruthless and grisly precision, we get a tame spat between Malachi and his second-in-command (which also involves a CGI demon a la the Balrog variety). This duel is not only stunted but poorly choreographed and pits Solomon against villains (Malachi in particular) we have barely seen in person up to that point. The fight between Kane and some thugs who assault him earlier in the film is far more compelling.
As for Solomon Kane himself, Purefoy brings him to life admirably, neither chomping at the bit nor playing him as some sort of soft-spoken, growling killing machine. There is visible passion behind his eyes and despite the frequent silliness, Purefoy never blinks. Max Von Sydow and the late Pete Postlewaite also provide strong work in supporting roles but this movie is laid upon the shoulders of Purefoy and he holds it up in commendable fashion.
Certainly worthy of a big screen release especially on a visual level, Solomon Kane is solid entertainment of the B-movie variety. Uneven but only sporadically dull, this is a confident adaptation that should undoubtedly please fans of the source material.
For the uninitiated like myself, Solomon Kane is strong enough to convince me there are more compelling stories that could be told through this character. Though that will likely not be the case, what we still have is a dark, moody and bleakly stunning parable that should gratify, if not provoke weighty questions about the nature of faith.