Based on Robert E Howard’s acclaimed pulp tales from the 1920s, Solomon Kane is a thoroughly entertaining demon-slaying romp set in 16th Century Britain. Boasting an impressive lead performance by James Purefoy as the anti-hero seeking redemption, the film bears enough individual traits and dynamism to overcome its numerous flaws and distance itself from the generic 'swords and sorcery' flicks of recent times.
The story kicks off with Captain Kane - equipped with pistols, rapier and a growling West Country drawl - depicted as a brutal killing machine intent on pillaging foreign lands for their riches. The Devil's Reaper is dispatched from the bowels of Hell to claim the corrupt Kane's soul, but he manages to escape and is forced into a life of spirituality and pacifism to keep himself alive. Back in England, he takes on a devout and impoverished existence until the demonical soldiers of a masked Overlord attack a Puritan family he has befriended and kidnap their daughter Meredith. After a torturous mental battle with his own psyche he opts to deploy his murderous talents for a good cause to save the girl - even if it means putting his soul at risk.
Two key facets of Solomon Kane help to elevate the fairly simple, no-frills script - the lead performance and the gritty visual texture. James Purefoy is perfectly cast as Kane, excelling as the morally ambiguous character whose company we enjoy but never feel entirely comfortable with. The English actor superbly brings out the undercurrents of danger and menace inherent in Kane's eyes while trying to seek a spiritual path. His fine work is also backed up by a high calibre supporting cast, including Pete Postlethwaite as Puritan patriach William Crowthorn and living legend Max von Sydow as Kane's merciless (but not in the Ming-ing sense) father.
The muddy and morbid landscape that frames the story is phenomenal, with a suitably rank stench of death permeating events. The cinematography immerses us into a world where rain-sodden corpses dangling from nooses litter the fields, and fog-drenched forests where terror might be lurking. The decision to use the Czech Republic to double for England works very well indeed. Unfortunately, while director Michael J. Bassett succeeds in establishing a visually expressive canvas, his work in painting the various battle sequences reeks of some very poor camerawork indeed. The frenetic, chaotic nature of such scenes, deprived of any clarity, often makes it a futile struggle to work out exactly what is going on and whose limbs are being severed.
Another fault seems to lie in the editing room, where several scenes end rather abruptly. One particular sequence involving a witch attack on the innocent Puritan family cuts off well before the threat has been vanquished, only to show them all well and safe the following morning. Very strange. You just have to assume the witch got a bit bored and flew off. Perhaps she caught sight of the film's final act, which scratches around for a while before plunging into the inevitable climactic battle only for it to conclude rather prematurely - as if the money and/or ideas had run out.
A lack of both clichéd one liners and a central love interest is very refreshing though, as those components are usually pre-requisite for such fare. Less impressive is the dialogue, which retains a comic book feel but comes across as too expositionary in the cinematic medium. For example, when the Devil's Reaper turns up on the scene it announces in a gravelly voice "I am the Devil's Reaper". This is coupled with Kane rattling off lines like "silence you dogs!" and "let not one of these putrid heathens live!" Still, it's naff in the most enjoyable way though, a bit like school discos and cheese fondue.
Solomon Kane is a far from perfect ride, but it's one that leaves you yearning for further adventures from the mentally tortured marauder. In that regard, the movie works almost like a TV pilot, establishing the multi-layered psyche of the lead character and the framework of the dangerous world in which he roams. It also retains a uniquely British feel and serves as a nice cultural antidote to the Turkey Twizzler style formulaic action movies churned out by Hollywood each year.
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