Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane back from the dead.
Solomon Kane (2009)
Director: Michael J. Bassett
Starring: James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, Rachel Hurd-Wood
IMDb rating: 6.1
Metacritic rating: 48
Solomon Kane was created by Robert E. Howard, the man behind Conan the Barbarian, and given the screen legacy of the great Cimmerian, it was probably only a matter of time until Howard’s danger-seeking Puritan adventurer made it to the screen as well. His chance came in 2009, whereupon the Solomon Kane film received tepid reviews and was watched by no one, only making back half its budget. It probably didn’t help that it wasn’t released in the States until four years after its UK release.
For fans of sword and sorcery epics, Solomon Kane is bursting at the seams with things to enjoy
It’s a damn shame, because Solomon Kane ranks right up there with Arnold’s original Conan on the list of best sword and sorcery films. Kane made his origins in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and it’s in embracing its pulp origins that Michael J. Bassett’s film really shines. It may have less to offer those who aren’t fans of the genre, but for fans of sword and sorcery epics, it’s bursting at the seams with things to enjoy.
Granted, the overall plot isn’t anything special, presenting a pretty standard story of a land in peril, with a reluctant hero forced to once again take up the sword to rescue a damsel in distress and slay the evil wizard. And it certainly doesn’t help that the Big Bad, Malachi, only shows up about ten minutes from the end. The individual episodes in Kane’s quest, on the other hand, work spectacularly, reinforcing the unashamedly pulpy world this story takes place in.
A lesser film might have been tempted to Nolanise the material, to make Solomon Kane serious and realistic. Fortunately, writer/director Michael J. Bassett takes the opposite approach, throwing everything he can think of from the pulp fantasy playbook at the screen and seeing what sticks. Kane runs into the Devil’s Reaper in an African fortress, saves a girl from being burned at the stake only to discover that she actually is a witch, escapes a zombie-infested crypt beneath an abandoned church and, for the finale, does battle with an enormous fiery demon conjured forth to claim his soul. In one gloriously ridiculous sequence, Kane even allows himself to be captured and crucified after believing his quest is failed, only to then see the damsel across the village and un-crucify himself, pulling his hands off the nails to try and get to her.
The woefully underrated James Purefoy, one of the great unsung action heroes of our time, carries the film in the title role
The fact that this is all done without any of the actors winking at the camera only makes Solomon Kane even more entertaining. The stories of Kane and Conan in Weird Tales always took themselves seriously, no matter how absurd the plots, and the Solomon Kane film embraces this part of its heritage with no less enthusiasm. The location shoots are gorgeous, with most of the film taking place outdoors in dark, claustrophobic forests and ruined villages, and it does a great job of making you believe that this really is an England on the brink of apocalypse.
The performances are great, with predictably excellent supporting turns from Pete Postlethwaite and Max von Sydow, but it’s the woefully underrated James Purefoy in the title role who carries the film. It’s odd hearing the man who was Rome’s Mark Antony speak in his native West Country accent, but he absolutely kills it as Kane, completely selling the character as a man with nothing to live for except to save the girl and hopefully redeem himself. He’s one of the great unsung action heroes of our time, and it’s a real pity he hasn’t had more opportunities to show what he can do.
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Purefoy reportedly has a real fondness for swords (he’s alleged to have stolen several from the set), and it shows in the fight scenes, which are frequent, entertainingly gruesome, and impressively choreographed. The film has been criticised for being dour and not much fun – and it certainly is dour, in keeping with the apocalyptic landscape and doomed Puritan hero – but it remains wonderful fun if you know what it’s trying to do. The fact that Solomon Kane embraces its pulp origins and tailors itself to people who like these stories, rather than trying to spread its appeal as wide as possible, is a part of what makes it so satisfying.
You get the impression that Solomon Kane wasn’t a focus-tested blockbuster designed to appeal to every demographic, but a movie that all concerned just really wanted to make. The only concession to current trends in genre filmmaking is that it’s an origin story that leaves itself open for a sequel. As much potential for further movies as the source material provides, the fact that Solomon Kane managed to be the best fantasy movie this side of The Lord of the Rings means it’s churlish to complain that there probably won’t be another. It would’ve been nice if a few more people had seen this one, though.
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All images: Optimum Releasing