Man on a mission: A critical review of “Solomon Kane” (2012)

November means Turkey Day for my stateside readership, so let’s round out this trilogy of pilgrim-hatted films by reviewing “Solomon Kane,” writer-director Michael J. Bassett’s rollicking ride to Puritanism…I guess. I must admit, I’ve not read too much Solomon Kane, which is not to say that I’ve not read too much Robert E. Howard. Quite the contrary, I am somewhat versed in the Conan mythos, have (unsurprisingly) read Howard’s contribution to the Lovecraft mythos, and have read the novelette “Pigeons From Hell,” which Stephen King called the best short-but-not-that-short story ever written. So I know my way around a Howard tale…but how does “Solomon Kane” stack up?

Well, right off the bat, it is not heartening to know that the film was made in 2009 but not released until 2012. Didst three years postponement a rightening make? Wast yon film shelved cos it suck? Or wast it just released one year after the reboot of “Conan the Barbarian” for free publicity? Leave us find out.

Solomon Kane (James Purefoy, going for a kind of Van Helsing via Hugh Jackman thing) is a bit of a bastard. He spends the first scene senselessly stabbing, blowing up and publicly humiliating so many Turks and Barbary pirates that he’s fair game for damnation when he encounters a demon at a fortress in North Africa (following a fairly impressive sequence involving mirrors). Knowing full well now that his soul will be eternally lost if he ever picks up the sword again, Kane renounces violence. As admirable as that is, it would hardly make for a good action flick, so you can bet your silver buckles it won’t last.

Years later, Kane is kicked out of the monastery in which he’s been hiding from the world (Robert Russel’s head monk offers some spotty theology: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” Maybe he just wanted Kane out of the building?). Refusing to return to his ancestral home in England–largely cos he murdered his older brother, and his father, Josaiah Kane (played by a surprisingly game Max von Sydow), is still a little pissed–Kane finds himself wandering again, neither here nor there.

He gets picked up by a covered wagon full of pilgrims (led by the always affable Pete Postlethwaite). They’re a fairly trusting lot, so we know at some point something going to set Kane off, and he’ll be decapitating and dismembering somewhat supernatural foes in no time. Maybe it’ll be the bands of roving bandits. Maybe it’ll be the leather-faced leatherface guy who’s running around England and magically making people into slaves. Maybe he’ll get frustrated by the lack of response from his pilgrim patron’s comely daughter. Or maybe it’ll be the presence those bird-masked plague doctors–cos you can’t have a quasi-medieval tale of redemption a few of without them. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll patch things up with his brother.

Convoluted recaps aside, there’s a lot to like about “Solomon Kane.” The sets are good. The costumes are good. The specials effects are…well, they’re not bad, and they are well used. There’s a lot for genre fans to grab onto in particular, what with the swordplay and fires in the background lighting gray and gloomy, doomy characters. And there are some interesting set-pieces: Along with that mirror sequence at the beginning, there is a young girl who turns into a levitating witch, a basement full of zombie-like folks and a crucifixion (which I, as a Classicist, can tell you is not Classically done). Plus, there’s an occasional bout of black humor (the fight in the graveyard, for example) to balance things out.

Of course, the film’s not all joy and dismemberment. There are a couple of things to dislike. For one, it has a fairly generic and uninspired soundtrack. The script is also not the best. This is essentially a superhero origin story, which means that it has the same elements of any superhero origin story. On the one hand, it’s often clunky and tedious; on the other, it practically writes itself! Maybe that’s a bad thing…

So to answer my initial question, I don’t think the film sat on the shelf cos it sucked. The film is fine. I think it sat around because they didn’t know what to do with it. The problem, for the writers, distributors and audiences, is figuring out who that guy in the capotain really is. In one scene, Kane is surprised in a seemingly abandoned church and draws his sword on a man of the cloth. “Forgive me, father,” he apologizes, sheathing his sword. “The times we live in.” Indeed.

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