Despite the massive success of the Lord of the Rings movies, swords-and-sorcery fantasy really hasn’t taken off as a movie genre. The common wisdom is that the cost is just too prohibitive, and the material too esoteric for success to be guaranteed. And so, plenty of hope is heaped on to Solomon Kane, a movie based on some short stories by Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan. Sadly, that hope gets crushed as the movie decides to keep things generic.
Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) has for several years been living a monastic existence, having repented his mercenary killing ways after an encounter with the devil’s reaper, who lays claim to his immortal soul. But the abbot has advised him to seek his redemption elsewhere, and so Kane begins a journey to save his soul. Along the way he runs into a pilgrim family trying to make their way to the New World. Meanwhile, an evil sorcerer has been conquering the English countryside, and though Kane wants to remain a pacifist, he is forced to take up arms once again after the pilgrim family is attacked. Though Kane fears for his soul, he is prepared to face down the devil himself as he finds a new cause to fight for.
Fans of the character will probably be disappointed in the way the movie provides a new origin for Kane. The stories were intentionally ambiguous about the character’s past, and some might feel that it’s presumptuous for the filmmakers to fill in all this new information. Taken alone, the plot is serviceable, if a little rudimentary. The story dips in the middle, as the script plays keep-away with the movie’s McGuffin, basically stalling for time, keeping the plot in stasis in order to pad out the runtime. The hero comes off as ineffectual and wishy-washy for most of the film, only getting to move forward as the film hits its third act. It also doesn’t help that his dialogue is generally terrible.
The Solomon Kane stories benefitted much from their unique setting. Not many sword-and-sorcery type fantasy stories are set in the Elizabethan age, an era caught in a nexus between superstition and science. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t make good use it, keeping the characters in what appears to be the medieval countryside, only the existence of flintlock pistols and Puritan ways indicating that they’re in a different age. To the film’s credit, it still all looks pretty good, with a sense of design that makes up for some of the deficiencies. The fights are plentiful, but they’re often edited too choppily to really enjoy.
James Purefoy is a reliable old hand, and there’s a grimness to him that serves the character well. But the script just doesn’t build a very good character for the actor. Purefoy has trouble keeping up with some of the character’s more inconsistent qualities, plenty of big moments simply falling flat. There are plenty of interesting names in this cast, but they don’t get a lot of time to shine. Jason Flemyng is the kind of actor that can steal an entire film in ten minutes, but they don’t give him that.
Hardcore fantasy fans might still get a kick out of Solomon Kane, the genre just not getting much film attention outside of the Harry Potter series. It’s just always fun to see swordfights and demons on screen. But the film still has a long way to go. The biggest problem with the film is that it feels really generic. While this is a unique property with a pretty unfamiliar setting, everything comes off as something we’ve seen before. It just couldn’t commit to the character, who in the stories was mostly an enigma, a Puritan whirlwind of violence whose origin isn’t nearly as important as the edge of his sword, or the sharpness of his tongue. All the marketing materials trumpet the fact that Kane was a Howard creation. I’m no purist, but the film could’ve taken its cue from that.