There are some film “worlds” that just seem like unpleasant places. The seventeenth century England of Solomon Kane is one of them. The landscape is riddled with dead bodies hanging from trees and just when one thinks he or she is done being pelted by CG snow, here comes the CG rain. And it is always overcast. Had there been morning television news back then, weathermen would have had even easier jobs than they have now.
But even harsher than the weather in Solomon Kane is the long trip the movie has taken to the United States. Two recent film adaptations of pulp heroes — Conan the Barbarian and John Carter — performed far below expectations despite both being better movies than most people gave them credit for. But before either of them made it to the movie theater, Solomon Kane had already been in and out of theaters and released on DVD in Europe. In fact, Solomon Kane premiered during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, meaning that the United States is finally getting this movie three years after it premiered and over two years since it was released on home media in Europe. It’s been so long that Pete Postlethwaite plays a major role in the film despite passing away in January 2011. Why the delay? No one really seems to know, but obviously the distributor behind the U.S. release (The Weinstein Company) still believes in the film if its was still pushing for a U.S. theatrical release (albeit limited) three years later.
Unlike Conan and John Carter, the titular character of Solomon Kane is really Conan creator Robert E. Howard‘s creation in name only. Sure, James Purefoy certainly looks the part — he’s a good stand-in for Viggo Mortensen‘s Aragorn with a dash of Hugh Jackman‘s Van Helsing — but the movie sets up to tell an origin story for the evil-vanquishing Puritan warrior that Howard never established. It takes about 45 minutes of the film to get this all out, with Kane beginning his career as an English privateer whose soul is cursed because of his evil deeds. Although he renounces violence as an attempt to cleanse himself of sin, Kane is later forced to pick up his swords and guns again when the family of pilgrims he is traveling with is killed by an evil force and their daughter Meredith Crowthrown (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is captured. Kane begins fighting his way to the heart of evil, only to discover that his connection to the leader is far more personal than he ever anticipated.
I question why heroic films are so obsessed with origin stories. Clint Eastwood‘s The Man With No Name had no origin — the closest we came was finding out where he got all his clothes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, yet he is a fully-realized character. Likewise the Kane of Howard’s stories simply appeared where needed to battle wickedness and evil, with Howard never explaining much about his background beyond vague hints of tragedy. I’m not sure why writer/director Michael J. Bassett, who is obviously a big enough fan of the character to pull him out of relative obscurity, would decide to take the film in this direction (UPDATE: as reader Taranaich points out in the comments, the “origin story” angle was dictated by the studio and wasn’t the choice of Bassett. Thanks Taranaich!)
Despite this, Solomon Kane isn’t a bad action film, although it’s rather joyless (it reminded me a lot of Willow, except, well, without the fun). The action scenes are exciting, except for the final battle in which Kane goes off to have an exposition filled heart-to-heart with a key character when he probably should be fighting with his army. Also, Kane’s tendency to always survive his ever-worsening injuries becomes humorous, like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But the long delay of release that this film faced doesn’t mean it’s bad, since it’s a lot better to some other direct to DVD medieval action films like Ironclad, which also starred Purefoy (and like those films, Solomon Kane casts one bonafide big name, and in this movie’s case it’s the legendary Max von Sydow in a small role as Kane’s father). Perhaps the most effective scenes are the ones which place this film in the horror genre, with a lot of ugly zombie-like characters out for Kane’s blood.
While Howard’s character is a dark individual, I’m not sure why Bassett wanted to go for such a dreary film. Even Lord of the Rings, whose style Bassett is clearly emulating, had moments of levity which made the darker moments seem that much darker. Solomon Kane keeps raising the stakes — such as Kane’s previously-mentioned miraculous ability to recover from increasingly awful injuries — to the point that it starts feeling a bit ridiculous. Once we get to the fourth time that we think Kane is dead we know it isn’t going to stick, so there goes the tension.
I like sword and sorcery films like Solomon Kane, and I think I might be one of seven or eight people who gave Conan the Barbarian a positive review. But Solomon Kane didn’t really do it for me, and as visually great as the film is it doesn’t have an engaging enough story to keep it interesting.
Rating: Great medieval action, but an origin story that doesn’t really engage the audience (5.5/10).
Solomon Kane is now playing on VOD and will have a limited theatrical release beginning September 28.