Robert E. Howard’s Elizabethan Puritan swashbuckler Solomon Kane, who took up arms against African sorcery and regular pirates, always seemed to be written entirely around the illustrations – the wide hat, long black coat, grim visage and various weapons makes him a proto-spaghetti western character, and at least a subliminal influence on the way Hugh Jackman dressed as Van Helsing. Also, like Howard’s other series ‘heroes’ (Conan, Kull), he just seemed to turn up fully-formed to get on with the story, impatient with fans’ demands that his biography be filled in from birth to retirement and later filmmakers’ requirements that he have a typical hero’s journey complete with backstory trauma and thorny (if predictable) family issues. In a tangle somewhat reminiscent of the set-up Russell Mulcahy gave the Shadow, this begins in North Africa in 1600 as a moustachioed, unPuritan pirate Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) and his scurvy band invade a palace in search of arrrh booty me lads – only for lamprey-mouthed demon thingies (the look of designer Patrick Tatopoulos’s creatures is practically a signature) in mirrors to snatch away the uncharacterised swabs before Kane is confronted by a ‘reaper’ who represents the Devil. For a film about a Puritan, this is oddly touchy about mentioning the Devil, Christ or anything Biblical.
Solomon realises he is likely damned for all is misdeeds, and heads back to England to a monastery – one which missed out on being dissolved by Henry VIII a generation earlier, we guess – to atone. An abbot rules that he has to leave to find his own path to redemption, and he spends a reel or so refraining from violence – even when bandits attack a nice Puritan family (headed by Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige) he falls in with. Writer-director Michael J. Bassett seems to get Puritans and Quakers mixed up (it’s easy to do – thanks to the hats), and assumes that the former, among the most violent people in English history (hence their attraction for Howard), were pacifists. Having made a vow to her dying father, Solomon is now obliged to rescue Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood, not to be confused with Evan Rachel Wood) from a Leatherface-masked thug who has psychic puppet-master powers and is the minion of wicked sorcerer Malachai (Jason Flemyng), who lives in the castle where Solomon grew up. In a flashback, young Solomon (Lucas Stone) resists his father Josiah (Max von Sydow, who doesn’t sound like any Somerset land-owner I ever met) when it is ordered he go into the church, and is semi-responsible for pushing his bullying rapist older brother Marcus (Samuel Roukin) off a cliff. So, guess who’s in the castle dungeon and who’s under the mask? The film comes up a bit short in the antagonist department – Flemyng looks odd, with writing on half his face as if he fell asleep into a wet manuscript, but is undercharacterised, turns up late in the day and gets out of the way quickly so another big CGI monster can do the final battle.
Solomon Kane is a top-of-the-third division action picture. It’s no Hawk the Slayer, but it’s no Lord of the Rings either. Purefoy, who gets to use something like the Taunton accent he probably went to stage school to wipe out, is terrific casting, but the film seems a bit reluctant to let him loose: we get vignettes in which Solomon sees off multiple baddies, skirmishes with a mad priest (Mackenzie Crook) who shoves visitors into the cellar of his ruined church to feed his vampire-zombie parishioners, has a spell of despair when he thinks the girl (pointedly a daughter figure rather than love interest) is dead and heroically wrenches himself off the nails when he’s crucified (his sword-handling skills are unimpaired) – but the grimness, the fire and the magic never quite come along. Hurd-Wood — whose CV runs to Wendy Darling, Sybil Vane, the abuse victim in An American Haunting and being rendered into a scent in Perfume — is in serious danger of being typed as a period necro pin-up – she was strangled in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking too – so should probably take a role in St Trinians III or a Ken Loach film about council estates before the shutters close forever. Dialogue is functional, the Czech countryside just doesn’t look like the Devon/Somerset border (though stay-at-home Texan Howard wasn’t exactly the man for geographical authenticity) and it all feels a bit too much like wheel-spinning in the hope of securing a bigger budget and a more extensive location trip for a sequel – after all, this uses practically none of Howard’s stories, which mostly take place in Africa. The less-showy Black Death does much better by period horror and religious fanaticism. Still, it’s a start.