Solomon Kane (2009)
Everyone knows Conan – and I don’t mean the talk show host. When you think Barbarian, you think Conan, you think Huge Fucking Sword and furry loincloth and maybe you’ll see the classic Marvel comic artwork or hear the funny Austrian accent.
You might not know Conan’s creator. Robert E Howard (1906-1936) was a bookish child who took up bodybuilding and boxing, but still really wanted to be a successful writer. He achieved that success at age twenty-three, and thereafter until his death by suicide he was published in a wide variety of magazines, journals and newspapers. He lived a comparatively short life, but in that time produced a prolific amount of pulp fiction in many genres. He was a member of HP Lovecraft’s Circle, making contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, but his Conan the Barbarian, and to a lesser extent Kull the Conqueror, was principle in the creation of the sub genre called, “Sword and Sorcery.”
But almost as successful in its day was his other creation: SOLOMON KANE. First published in Weird Tales in 1928, SOLOMON KANE was a vengeful Puritan demon/monster slayer, described by Howard as a sombre, saturnine man with cold eyes shadowed forever beneath a slouch hat. Dressed in black and armed with rapiers, cutlasses and flintlock pistols, he wandered the world, slaying evil without compunction. Kane was a big hit with the readers. When Marvel Comics first published their very successful Conan comics in the Seventies, they also produced a few issues with Kane, and Dark Horse Comics resurrected the character in the 2000s.
But while Conan enjoyed a couple of movies from the Eighties, Kane missed out – until Wandering Star Productions optioned the film and book publishing rights in 1997 from the Robert E Howard Estate. In 2001 it was announced that Christopher Lambert was offered the role of Kane, but then negotiations fell apart among the backers. Things went quiet for a while during which time several scripts were developed around the African adventures of SOLOMON KANE from the classic text. By 2006 Michael J Basset (DEATHWATCH, SILENT HILL: REVELATION) was hired as writer and director of the film, with a brief to write an origin story based loosely on the Howard poems and classic text, and in August 2006 he finished writing the script. Finally on October 1, 2007, it was announced that James Purefoy was cast as the lead, and principal photography finally began in Prague on 14 January 2008.
Production was completed in 2009, but though it was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival later that year, and was released in theatres and on DVD in the UK in 2010, an American release on VOD was delayed until August 24 of this year, with a subsequent release in the theatres on September 18, as reported by Scott here. (According to Bassett’s blog, he doesn’t know why it was delayed). Will it be worth the wait for my Yankee friends?
The film opens in North Africa, 1600, with the piratical Kane (James Purefoy, JOHN CARTER) leading the crew of his ship of mercenaries into battle against the Ottoman occupiers of a fortress town. Kane proves to be a ruthless, savage warrior, even willing to shoot his own men in the back for displaying cowardice. After fighting their way into the fortress, Kane and his men find themselves in a room of enchanted mirrors like some forgotten wing of Hogwarts. Demons hiding within the mirrors attack and kill most of his crew, but Kane fights his way into the adjacent throne room. Inside, as he forgets his men and helps himself to the fortress’s treasure, a demon dressed in hooded black robes and armed with a flaming sword appears. It is the Devil’s Reaper (Ian Whyte, one of the Engineers in PROMETHEUS), and in a voice like Tom Waits with throat cancer, it tells Kane his evil deeds have irrevocably damned his soul, and he is now destined for Hell, and would you mind coming along now, buddy? Kane is less than enthused, crying out, “I am not yet ready for Hell!” and leaping out the nearest window into the Mediterranean.
A year later, we find Kane in an English monastery, seeking sanctuary and redemption, with religious symbols carved into his body. But the Abbott (Robert Russell, THE ILLUSIONIST) orders him out, having received a dream that Kane’s redemption would be found elsewhere, perhaps at his ancestral estates in Devon. We also learn that Kane was the second son of Josiah Kane (Max Von Sydow, from some possession movie whose name escapes me), the eldest son Marcus (Samuel Roukin) expected to inherit the lands, despite being an obvious douche. Young Solomon, refusing to join the monastery, leaves for a life of adventure, though not before accidentally sending Marcus over a nearby cliff during a fight. As you do.
Following an ambush by robbers when he refuses to fight them, Kane is found and treated by a family of Puritans, led by William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite, JURASSIC PARK 2) and his wife Katherine (Alice Krige, GHOST STORY), who have plans to go to the New World. He travels with them for several days, enchanted by eldest daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood, AN AMERICAN HAUNTING) and befriending youngest son Samual (Rachel’s real-life brother Patrick Hurd-Wood, PETER PAN). His thoughts begin to turn towards joining them in the Americas.
But the land is beset with an evil: the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng, Jekyll/Hyde in LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) and his lieutenant, the Masked Rider, is killing and burning all in their path, abducting a select few to serve as either his demonic soldiers… or something worse. The Rider and his forces kill most of the Crowthorns, but take Meredith away alive, and Kane, who has now re-embraced his violent side – with a fucking vengeance – vows to rescue Meredith and destroy Malachi and his evil.
First, the positives. The one thing I enjoyed about the Hammer movies (and the era that the films were made) was the cinematography: nobody captured the bleak forests, frozen moors and ruined castles quite like Hammer – at least, until now. It’s stark, poetic, and authentic-seeming in SOLOMON KANE, while also acknowledging that it was a dirty, brutal and bloody period in history, where women and children weren’t spared, where bodies were left on roadsides to rot, and where there was only maybe three or four Starbucks in each town. The action and fight scenes, while obviously choreographed, didn’t flinch with bloodletting or limb hackings. There was nothing civilised about the combat, but it also kept (for the most part) realistic, even when they were fighting supernatural creatures.
The acting all around worked well (though the likes of Pete Postlethwaite and Max Von Sydow were criminally underused, especially Von Sydow, whose role essentially became an extended cameo; what a waste). Purefoy carried the eponymous role extremely well, able to shoulder playing a ruthless anti-hero, an efficient killer on the side of good. And he kept it absolutely straight (the look and character of him might remind viewers of Hugh Jackman in VAN HELSING, but Purefoy’s Kane would kick Jackman’s Van Helsing into the middle of next week) and menacing. The creatures were kept real, and good-looking, and threatening (there is one memorable sequence where Kane gets thrown into a church cellar filled with former parishioners turned ghouls, and has to fight his way out), at least until the end.
Which leads me to the negatives. The story felt very rushed, despite the fact that it’s over forty minutes before circumstances force Kane to renounce his peaceful ways, and it’s only then that we learn who the chief bad guy is (and we don’t even get to see Jason Flemyng until the final act). There’s also a certain level of predictability to it; once you see the rivalry between the young Solomon and his brother, you can pretty much guess the rest. The fact that it was meant to the first in a trilogy is also obvious.
The other major problem was Kane’s relative invincibility – though not to the ridiculous comic book level in VAN HELSING, whose hero could get thrown a hundred feet into the air and walk away. Kane was said by others to be a matchless warrior, and to be fair, he proves it, going up against bandits, possessed soldiers, ghouls, all with a resigned ease, at one point literally pulling himself off of the cross to which he had just been nailed, when he hears Meredith calling to him. Even in the final act, when he faces the Masked Rider, Malachi, and a thirty-foot fiery demon cousin to the Balrog from LORD OF THE RINGS (a letdown after the preferred use of real effects and costumes to portray the bad guys), he defeats them rather quickly. It was as if his greatest fight was meant to be within himself and his desire for redemption, though really you knew how that was going to happen, too. Still, he throws a decent sword.
But despite these negatives, SOLOMON KANE remains a decent entry into the dark fantasy/sword and sorcery genre, and the notion of a character seeking redemption while also being a major badass is appealing. Catch it on VOD when it comes out. The trailer is here.
Director: Michael Bassett (& writer)
Plot: 2 out of 5 stars
Gore: 4 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien