It’s 1601. James Purefoy is Solomon Kane, bloodthirsty barbarian and all round nasty bastard. All this changes when he runs into the Devil’s Reaper, a demon who tells him that his soul is damned for eternity due to all his naughtiness. Said demon then tries to rip his head off. Managing to escape and now determined to redeem himself, he abandons evilness and converts to Puritanism, holing up in a monastery to meditate and try and clean up his act. But he soon gets kicked out by the Abbot for having the minor matter of a massive curse hanging over his head. So he hits the road, taking his new vows so seriously that he refuses to even defend himself. Which obviously leads to a gang of goons kicking the shit out of him. After that he meets almost-too-good-to-be-true Puritan family, the Crowthorns. And, before you can say ‘this is an accident waiting to be raped and murdered’, they’re attacked by a brutal gang of mercenaries sent by nasty tattooed sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), who kill most of the family and kidnap daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood). With his dying breath her father declares that if Solomon can rescue his daughter, his soul will be saved. So off Kane pops on a journey of redemption to rescue Meredith, via deranged priests with ghouls for parishioners, crucifixions and even having to kill his own brother.
Solomon Kane was born back in 1928, from the imagination of Conan-creator and pulp-era author Robert E Howard. Solomon previously inhabited the pages of Weird Tales magazine and although the rights were optioned back in 1997, he took 12 years to make it to the screen.
I find James Purefoy a little bit hard to swallow as an action hero. I’ve always seen him more as a period drama type (Vanity Fair, Mansfield Park). Plus he is knocking on a bit (sorry James). But he scrubs up (or down) really well and pulls off a convincing Kane, even using his own West Country accent (which does add a certain unintentional comedy to some of the lines). His change from nutbag killer to tortured soul is very convincing, especially when he realises that it’s all well and good to say that you’re not going to kill anyone any more, but sometimes you just have to (note: this is not a good life rule for the rest of us). This is one of the things that make his character interesting – yes he’s had a big ole change of heart but he’s still a tad morally ambiguous. Although you’re rooting for him, you’re never quite sure that you should be…
We’ve got a couple of heavyweights in supporting roles – the much missed Pete Postlethwaite as Meredith’s father and Max Von Sydow as Josiah Kane, Solomon’s dad, who’s been locked up in his own dungeon as Malachi’s zombified his other son and taken over the ancestral pile. Jason Flemyng doesn’t get to do an awful lot as Malachi – he’s only on screen right at the very end. But it’s no bad thing as he isn’t as scary as his possessed minions so for the film’s sake it’s probably better that he stays in the shadows.
This is an origin story and as such, doesn’t follow any of Howard’s original novels, or the comic books that came out later. Probably for that reason the story is a tad thin in places. But it doesn’t really matter as the sombre and hostile atmosphere, great costumes and set design, and an atmospheric score from Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Constantine) lift it way above the mediocre. The Czech Republic doubles for 17th century England and the cinematography is amazing (especially considering the budget); the foggy, damp and often corpse-ridden landscapes immerse us in Kane’s unforgiving world. This is down and dirty fantasy – it’s raining and muddy all the time, everyone’s out to make a quick buck with some nasty witch or wizardry (or just plain old murder) and people die in pretty brutal ways (‘Crucifixion? Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each’).
All of the above coupled with a strong lead performance from Purefoy, makes Solomon Kane above average swords-and-sorcery whilst exuding a nice Britishness which you don’t see in this kind of film very often. It also manages to avoid cliché and stay just the right side of dark and brooding. If the mooted sequels come off, it’ll be really interesting to see what they can do with a bigger budget.