“Solomon Kane” is a film divided, at odds with itself over the need to be equal parts a morality play and a sword-and-sorcery action/adventure film. Although both approaches allow for several satisfying scenes, neither approach is permitted to be all it could have been. As a morality play, it often takes itself too seriously; there are one too many instances where the characters speak lines that border on the preachiness of an afterschool special. As a sword-and-sorcery film, it doesn’t take itself seriously enough. There are, in fact, so few displays of fantasy that one wonders why anyone bothered to include them at all. Having said that, the displays are a pleasure to watch, despite being few in number. In the beginning, we have twig-framed mirrors that house howling demons. At the end, we have a fiery monstrosity that looks like a cross between a lava creature and an armored guard.
Drawing inspiration from the pulp magazine character created by Robert E. Howard (best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian), the film tells the story of Solomon Kane (James Purefoy), who in the year 1600 was a vile and violent mercenary sent to pillage and destroy a fortress town in Northern Africa. This mission serves as a prologue sequence; after most of his men are killed by evil forces in a castle full of treasure, Kane is confronted in the throne room by a hooded, faceless figure that refers to itself only as The Devil’s Reaper. In a voice that instantly reminds you of a demonic possession film, it informs Kane that his soul has been damned due to a lifetime of evil deeds and that his next stop is hell. Kane, defiant even in matters of the satanic, claims he isn’t ready for hell and escapes through a window overlooking the sea. As the title appears onscreen, The Reaper shouts out that Kane cannot hide and that the devil will get what he wants.
One year later, we find Kane in an English monastery, having renounced his former life and become a pacifist. Acting on a dream he had, an abbot expels Kane, presumably because he cannot seek redemption merely by isolating himself. And so Kane begins travelling on foot through the English countryside. After refusing to defend himself against a band of violent thugs and getting knocked unconscious, he’s rescued by the Crowthorns, a family of loving, hospitable puritans bound for the New World. The father, William (the late Pete Postlethwaite), is a remarkably understanding man, knowing that Kane is ashamed of his past and yet believing that he can redeem himself. Much of Kane’s guilt stems from his childhood, when he defied the authority of his father (Max von Sydow) and accidentally pushed his abusive, power-hungry brother off a cliff.
The Crowthorns are soon attacked by the followers of a ruthless and mostly unseen sorcerer named Malachi, who has taken control of the kingdom. His right-hand man is an unnamed warrior that conceals his face behind a stitched leather mask. William’s daughter, Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood), is taken prisoner, in large part because, in an earlier scene, her hand was marked by a witch disguised as a little girl. In order for Kane to save her – and, in turn, himself – he must be willing to once again embrace a life of violence. The difference is that, this time around, he will channel it towards defeating the forces of evil. As he ventures toward a climactic confrontation with Malachi in the ruins of his ancestral home, Kane will have a run-in with an insane priest (Mackenzie Crook), who must feed live human flesh to a group of humanoid ghouls locked in a subterranean chamber.
I’m making this sound a lot more fun than it actually is. Although the film’s tone is generally appropriate given the subject matter, there are select moments when it’s decidedly darker than it needs to be. Consider, for instance, the visual motif of dead bodies hanging from nooses in rows of four or five, or a scene in which men, Kane included, are crucified and put on display. In a movie that involves fun, escapist ideas like sorcery, witchcraft, demons, and swordfights, the sight of barbaric and very realistic forms of execution will probably be too much for some audiences. There’s also the fact that the lighting is dark and faded and the color scheme is muddy. This approach is better suited for an authentic period drama; because this is a fantasy, I believe it would have benefited greatly from richer colors and brighter lighting. Thank God this film wasn’t released in 3D. It might have been just shy of unwatchable.
To give credit where credit is due, all the actors give decent performances – at least, as decent as they can be given the kind of film this is, namely a glorified B-movie. And while the material is preposterous and hardly compelling, it still ranks higher on my list than two other films adapted from Howard’s stories, specifically the 1982 and 2011 versions of “Conan the Barbarian” (the God-awful original film especially). “Solomon Kane” is not a terrible movie, but considering the fact that two different genres are fighting for the same space, it certainly isn’t as good as it could have been. I’m wondering what angle of approach the filmmakers should have taken. Would it have been better to make it a serious fantasy epic in the same vein as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, or a campy send-up of recent films like “Clash” and “Wrath of the Titans”? In either case, at least then the film would be consistent.