Friday, February 19, 2010

SOLOMON KANE - a near perfect piece of pulp entertainment

I love the CONAN films, and pretty much all Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks from the eighties in general. But CONAN is special. There's something deliciously disturbing about a woman like me (quasi-feminist, post-modern, intellectual snob) liking something so, well, unreconstructed in its full-on appreciation for strong men swinging swords in a battle for cosmic stakes painted in simplistic terms. Good and evil are tangible in the world of Robert E. Howard. So while I didn't know much about SOLOMON KANE going into the film, I knew enough: for this is another character created by Robert E. Howard, and in true pulp stylee, the resulting film is just astoundingly, unashamedly pure in its intentions. We are going to get a straightforward battle between good and evil fought for the ultimate stakes, and it will be waged by a fit guy with a multitude of weapons.

Solomon Kane is a sixteenth century aristocrat turned rebel warrior. Like St Augustine he has lived a life of pillage and murder upon the high seas, resulting in the Devil laying claim to his soul. Kane being no hippie vegetarian, he escapes the Devil and retreats to a monastery whereupon he repents and disavows violence. With steady purpose he sets off back to the West Country to his ancestral home, but finds that it has become over-run by sorcery and evil with a capital E (good piece of paedophobia involved). His dilemma is whether to forfeit his redeemed soul and take up the sword in order to vanquish evil.

The first thing to say is that this movie looks fantastic. It's all gothic horror - misty moors, muddy fields, craggy castles on clifftops. The cast look like Puritans have turned up in the middle of Mordor, with Solomon Kane looking distinctly like Aragorn and the evil thugs rather orkish. Mackenzie Crook of THE OFFICE looks particularly superb in a frightwig as a mad old priest and James Purefoy (Mark Anthony in HBO's ROME) looks every inch the convincing warrior with a crisis of conscience. They've even wheeled out Max von Sydow as Kane's father and Jason Flemying as the sorcerer Malachai with some very fruity face-grafitti.

The second thing to say is that despite the complete insanity of the plot - witches, sorcerers, pacts with the devil etc - everyone plays it straight. There's never a whiff of pastiche and somehow, the fact the actors all invest into it, means that we do too. I mean, the stakes are absurdly high here, but I never for a minute thought "Hold up! This is RIDONKULOUS!" Rather, I was genuinely fascinated to see how it would all play out, and felt genuinely sorry for this poor bastard who renounces violence and lives in genuine fear for his immortal soul but is caught in the worst of all Catch-22s.

Basically, SOLOMON KANE is just about as perfect as you can get for sword-swinging fantasy epic entertainment. I dock it half a mark for breaking the carefully constructed veil of plausibility by inserting a truly ludicrous CGI monster into the final act. It's even more annoying that writer-director Michael J Bassett did this, because when you look at the narrative, and the choice that has to be made to drive the denouement, you don't actually need the monster at all. The key point is that Kane has to make a choice, and a sacrifice. The struggle is internal, and the struggle against external ravenous beasties is secondary. Still, despite that minor hiccup, SOLOMON KANE remains an impressive and entertaining flick. I could happily watch it again, and I'm really hoping it makes enough phat cash that they greenlight the rest of the planned trilogy.

SOLOMON KANE played Toronto 209 and opened in France, Kazakhstan and Russia last Christmas. It opened earlier this year in Spain and the Philippines and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in the Netherlands on March 18th and in South Korea on March 25th. No US release date yet.


  1. If you like Howard, then you'll LOVE Dark Agnes. If the Dark Agnes stories were written by Germaine Greer, people would accuse the character as the masturbatory fantasy of an extreme feminist.

    There are many other Howard stories with kick-ass females: "The Shadow of the Vulture," (the original Red Sonya, far cooler than her comic counterpart Red Sonja) "Red Nails," "Swords of the Northern Sea," "The Isle of Pirate's Doom," and The Hour of the Dragon are some of the best. Even his damsels break the mold oftentimes: some even have to save the mighty Conan's skin.

  2. Interesting! I have to confess that I've never actually read any Howard, and I'm cognizant of the fact that films are often nothing like the books. For a novice it's very confusing. On Amazon there are hundreds of Kane books (including the shameless cash-in film novelisation) but half of them aren't written by Howard at all. So, if you were advising a newby, where should he/she start?