Most fantasy movies geared toward a mature audience usually stumble when trying to merge it’s more fantastical elements with more adult themes such as graphic nookie, boobies and extreme bloodletting. These days Game Of Thrones (or at least two thirds of it) seems to be the template to making this shit work and still be successful, but back in the day, author Robert E. Howard had cracked the formula for the 1930’s equivalent by cooking up everyone’s favourite Barbarian, Conan The Cimmerian, a wildly successful creation who went on to adorn movies, comics and video games. But Howard also created another character of note, one that dealt out justice in a similarly wild world of wanton evil and sin and his name was Solomon Kane.
It’s the year 1600 and vicious English privateer Solomon Kane leads his men as they tear a fortress town in North Africa a new arsehole all in the name of riches. However, a surprise awaits them when they are beset by demons upon reaching the throne room and while Kane avoids his crew’s grisly fate, that doesn’t stop him having an unfortunate encounter with a huge, hooded figure that introduces itself under the humble moniker of The Devil’s Reaper and claims that for all of his misdeeds, Solomon’s soul now is owned by the devil.
Enough to scare this hardened killer straight almost immediately, Solomon escapes and promptly shacks up in a monastery while renouncing violence in all its forms. Years later, despite donating all his wealth to the church, the abbot says he has to leave as a prophetic dream he had give Kain a hint of his true destiny and so the humbled Solomon wanders the countryside in progressively shittier weather while waiting for divine providence to strike.
Strike it does in the form of the Crowthorns, a kindly group of puritans who take Solomon in after his vow of peace sees him getting roughed up by some ruffians and soon he bonds with the kindly family. This also is destined to be short lived as a dark shadow is moving across the land, corrupting the strong and slaying the weak as the possessed armies of Malachi, an evil sorcerer who leaves his hulking henchman, The Masked Rider, to do his dirty work. After an unfortunate run in with said Rider leave most of the Crowthorns in a state of extreme death and virtuous daughter Meredith spirited away, Solomon reasons that God would have no problems with him lifting his ban of violence when killing possessed acolytes to rescue a young girl is on the cards. So he embarks on a bloody quest to save the girl and his soul by throwing his weight against whatever form of evil happens to be standing in his way in an adventure that involves monsters, demons, zombies and the odd spot of crucifixion…
While hardly breaking the mold of brutal fantasy films, what Solomon Kane does, it does well enough to be a spirited, mud-splattered, blood spraying romp that takes Robert E. Howard’s faustian hero and gives him quite a decent first outing – as well as good beating.
There’s aspects here you’ve seen a million times before in countless movies and videogames that takes in everything from a hero atoning for his brutal past to a path setting childhood trauma (Max Von Sydow even plays his dad), but director M.J. Basset (Deathwatch, Silent Hill: Revelation) keeps his eye on the ball and turns in a hard edged actioner that’s way better than the 2011 Conan reboot.
Admirably resisting the urge to add modern, snarky comments to the blood streaked proceeding much in the way both Jason Mamoa’s version and 1984’s Conan The Destroyer did, Somon Kane is closer to John Milius’ absurdly hard edged Conan The Barbarian as every scene just looks like it was miserable to film. Whether the billowing snow or the driving rain was real or Hollywood magic is irrelevant, it just feels grim as arseholes, but thankfully it adds nicely to the stark seriousness of its lead character.
Jame Purefoy had a near brush with hats, long coats and fancy blade work before, after he left V For Vendetta to be replaced by Hugo Weaving, but here he gets to get stuck right in and while his moustachioed, violent phase is noticably more fun (especially when goading his enemy at sword point with a magnificently arrogant “Yes?” to rile them up), he does well in his pious phase too, making Kane a little bit more interesting than similar, humourless heroes while absorbing Kirk Douglas levels of on-screen abuse. While matters get a little episodic (the bit with Mackenzie Crook’s ghoul keeping priest is technically superfluous), Purefoy has a range of British character actors around to keep him company such as Pete Postlewaite’s kindly Chrowthorn, Jason Flemyng’s tattooed sorcerer and a pre-Hound Rory McCann which turns out to be particularly amusing as the mutilated, undead Masked Rider is a blatent rip off of what eventually happens to his on-screen brother, the Mountain, in Game Of Thrones.
Not everything works, Flemyng’s villain isn’t even seen until the end and his mute henchman, the Masked Rider, simply doesn’t have enough of that Darth Vader energy to make up for it and budget constraints means that a fiery demon in the final act looks less like it’s been summoned from Hell and more like it’s crawled out of a Playstation 2. Also, you can’t help but notice that at numerous times, Purefoy in character looks suspiciously like Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing and that’s something no one wants to be reminded of.
All the stotic, muddy seriousness might bore those wanting some glib, MCU style one liners or a more cerebral take like George R. R. Martin’s stuff, but as a short, sweet and sober slice of hard edged pulp, Solomon Kane was tough enough to deserve a stab at a sequel.