The joy at finally seeing a big-screen version of Solomon Kane is blunted by the fact that it took so long to reach us. Great Britain saw a release in 2010, but us Yanks have either had to pony up for a Region 2 DVD player or gnash our teeth in endless frustration. (Piracy remains an option, of course, but I’m sure no one out there ever does that.) Considering how much B-level fun it delivers, that oversight feels unconscionable. I’m inclined to cite the godawful Conan reboot as the biggest culprit, but now that Kane is finally here, those reasons scarcely matter.
The character, for those not in the know, sprung from the pen of Robert E. Howard: written in the same spirit as Conan but with a much different setting and thrust. Kane is a Puritanical monster hunter, using unflinching faith and a variety of weapons to battle supernatural evil in the 17th century. The movie endeavors to give him an origin story. As played by James Purefoy, he begins life as a bloodthirsty pirate until an encounter with “the Devil’s Reaper” shows him the hellfire and damnation awaiting him in the afterlife. He retreats to a monastery, but it holds no peace for him despite his vow of pacifism and some delightful bouts with self-mutilation. He ventures back out into the world, only to find the armies of a dark sorcerer named Malachi (Jason Flemyng) ravaging the English countryside. They slaughter a Puritan family who has befriended him, dragging off the daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) as a slave. Somewhere in there, that whole “no killing” thing falls by the wayside.
You can sense the film’s high ambitions in every frame, as writer-director Michael J. Bassett moves heaven and Earth to bring this character to life. His secret lies in how he focuses that ambition: not by exceeding the grasp of his modest budget but by understanding exactly how much he can achieve with it. The big effects shots are limited to the opening and closing: first when Kane encounters a hall full of possessed mirrors, the second when he finally confronts Malachi. Between them, Solomon Kane relies solely on atmosphere to carry the day. England has rarely appeared muckier than it does here, with dying trees, bleak villages and frozen ground that stings the toes just looking at it. The only color we see comes from fires… usually something or someone going up like a Roman candle. It all fits the hero like a glove: Purefoy plays him as a man without hope, more concerned with vengeance than justice and happy to embrace the pits of hell if it means taking a few evildoers with him.
As a bit of Howard-esque pulp, it holds considerable appeal, taking itself very seriously while still investing its world with a surprising amount of life. Purefoy looks damn good in Kane’s Puritanical black, and convinces us of his character’s inner torments without having to gnaw on the scenery to do it. When he gets going, the film is hard to beat, and Bassett’s devotion gives the film more to bank on than low-rent action scenes.
Solomon Kane struggles a little more as an origins story, something Howard never really articulated and which the character doesn’t need. Here, it touches too many easy tropes, including a troubled family past and a redemption that feels too tidy for its own good. Max von Sydow cuts into the sting as Kane’s estranged father, but in delivering a meatier hero, the film also slides uncomfortably close to mediocrity.
Luckily, the character is too unique and the filmmakers too devoted to delivering him properly to fail. Excessive jokiness would have destroyed it, but so too would an inability to find the right tone. (The Conan reboot took itself seriously as well, and look what happened.) Bassett gives us plenty of reasons to respect his tale, then refuses to break that contract with cheap tricks or shoddy delivery. He ultimately does justice to one of pulp-dom’s stranger and more original creations, no small feat when we consider how easily he could have screwed it up. Solomon Kane carries an epic soul deployed on a humbler canvas, and honors both sides of the equation in the process. In some ways, a delayed release feels perfect for this kind of story. It lets newcomers approach it in the right spirit and reminds long-time fans of the atmosphere so necessary to make it work. The long wait was exasperating; thankfully, we didn’t undertake it in vain.