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‘Solomon Kane’ a grim and decent old-fashioned adventure

Solomon Kane

Directed by Michael J. Bassett

Written by Michael J. Bassett

France, the Czech Republic, and the UK, 2009

These days, it’s hard for a film to avoid being cynical, to be purely sincere in its aims. Earlier in 2012, the pulpy science-fiction adventure John Carter sought to be a massive piece of mainstream entertainment, hearkening back to an era of serialized adventure, akin to something like the Indiana Jones series but with more than a dash of sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Though John Carter was enjoyable, it flopped at the box office almost instantly. Another old-fashioned film making its way to the multiplex, one foot planted firmly in the past and one in the future, is Solomon Kane, a grim yet often successful tale of violent justice in the name of peace.

James Purefoy (who had a charming if small role in John Carter) is the title character, a former bloodthirsty mercenary whose face-off with a minion of the Devil in North Africa circa 1600 puts him on the path of nonviolent resistance. A year later, Kane has returned to England, living in a monastery, and finds that being a peaceful man is more difficult than it looks. Despite befriending a goodhearted Puritan family named Crowthorn, Kane is forced back into the old ways when the transformed followers of a priest-turned-sorcerer named Malachi kidnap the Crowthorn daughter, Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood). The girl’s father, William (the late Pete Postlethwaite), tells Kane, with his dying words, that if he saves Meredith, his soul will no longer be banished to Hell. With this killing-two-birds-with-one-stone goal in mind, Kane goes on the warpath to face off all forms of evil, human or demon.

Purefoy eschews his natural charisma as Kane, a driven, determined, and dour figure. More often than not, his performance as well as the look of the film are reminiscent of the 2004 film Van Helsing. Thankfully, unlike Van Helsing, Solomon Kane frequently avoids falling into the trap of excessive self-seriousness, just barely. Though the film, written and directed by Michael J. Bassett, doesn’t have a glowing sense of humor, it also subtly acknowledges how ridiculous most of the story is on its face. Solomon Kane, originally created by Robert E. Howard (best known for creating Conan the Barbarian), fits an all-too-common archetype in action movies: he wants badly to never get involved in a fight, even though he’s very good in such situations, and we know he’ll have to get blood on his hands eventually (and we want him to do so). Purefoy’s performance is such that he makes the incongruousness of Solomon Kane believable, real in a story full of unreality.

Due to the structure of the script, Purefoy’s the only constant presence in the film; close behind is Hurd-Wood, but because she’s the damsel in distress, she disappears for good chunks of the running time. Other recognizable faces who do fine, if brief, work are Postlethwaite; as written, it would feel wrong for any other actor to play William. Max von Sydow appears in an extended cameo as Kane’s father. Though von Sydow is an excellent actor in general, his scenes are the most rushed and awkward. Bassett, as writer, doesn’t often stumble from sequence to sequence, but we mostly see von Sydow in flashbacks that are dealt with poorly.

The most striking issue with Solomon Kane—though not enough to eliminate its other pleasures—is that Bassett’s work as director is lacking in the scenes where talent is required most of all: the action sequences. Kane’s weapon of choice is typically a sword, though he also brandishes a pistol. Thus, most of the fight scenes are hand-to-hand, which is where Bassett falters. He prefers, as most action directors do, to rely on quick cuts, rapid-fire editing, and almost blurry shots to emphasize gritty fighting. Unfortunately, that just makes most of the action incoherent. The sound design is almost enough to save these scenes, but the setpieces could’ve really dazzled had they been clearer.

Still, Solomon Kane—which is, oddly, getting its North American release now despite having been completed and released in most European countries in 2009—is a decent and dark period piece. James Purefoy has always been on the outskirts of stardom, waiting for the right project to vault him into the stratosphere. Considering the lengthy delay between filming and release, this won’t be the lucky movie, but he’s an able leading man, a solid presence in a film that at least attempts to deal with weighty issues. At its core, Solomon Kane is an old-school tale, earnest if gory; that it tries to deal with the conundrum of fighting for peace is a pleasant enough surprise, even if the film isn’t interested in committing fully to that idea.

— Josh Spiegel

Note. In the Phoenix area, Solomon Kane will be showing this weekend exclusively at the Harkins Shea 14.