Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Solomon Kane

Solomon KaneSolomon Kane

Robert E. Howard was the Texan creator of Conan the Barbarian. Never known for subtlety, he was known for some extraordinary flights of fancy and a solid grasp of action fiction. Indeed besides Conan, he created many other muscle-bound heroes, warriors such as Kull or Bran Mak Morn, mostly in the same mould as his most famous creation. Slightly out of that mould though was his 16th Century Puritan avenger, Solomon Kane; religious where Conan was licentious, obsessive where the barbarian was free-wheeling, Kane's darkness is in keeping with his relative obscurity.
Obscure no longer! With "Solomon Kane", Michael J. Bassett has brought Solomon to the big screen and I'm kind of glad he did.
For one this is often a very beautiful movie, with scenes that reminded me of Michael Reeves' horrible masterpiece, "Witchfinder General". Like that movie, corpses hang fornlornly in glorious country landscapes, pure, happy people enjoy the sunlight before being dragged into evil shadows. But this is no realistic 16th Century. Mixed with Reeves' influence are elements of Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness". Sorcery and witches abound, and this England gradually comes to look like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. In short it evokes the whole tone of Howard's stories perfectly.
However, if the visuals are arresting, the sound is appalling. I can't remember the last time the muddiness of the sound was such that it damaged my enjoyment, but here it's far too noticeable. It's strange because otherwise Bassett seems to have marshalled a reasonable budget to play with. (Having said that, Hollywood should give this man a real budget! He shows promise.) Klaus Badelt gives a serviceable score and the design is eerily appropriate. Reliable character actors like Pete Postletwaite, Alice Krige and the magisterial Max Von Sydow (I bless every day he's alive!) reinforce this impression that some quality is involved. However, the cast is not perfect, not by a long way. James Purefoy may look the part of Kane, but I think he missed a few of his acting classes, specifically the ones to do with anything outside of sneering and looking guilt-ridden. He gets better as the movie goes on, but he never risks being mistaken for an actor of subtlety.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Howard. After all this is a world where witches, far from being innocent girls punished by a patriarchal society, are instead homicidal hags who burn people's eyes out from the stake. Let's just say Howard's moral view is a little black and white. Hellfire and damnation is perfectly acceptable in this universe, and villains, such as Jason Flemyng's thankfully underused Malachai, are straight out of panto. Only Malachai's Jason-like lieutenant is in any way impressive as a merciless sociopath.
And that black and white duality carries through to the film as a whole. For every stroke of brilliance, Bassett lets himself down with a cliché (witness the converted thug's laughable "It's good!"). The film powers along, but then if it paused at all you might get to asking awkward questions. My advice is don't ask them. It's popcorn sword and sorcery, and yes, you've seen a lot like it before. But it's all of a calibre that raises the overall game of the genre. Special effects are used in the service of the story, as they should be, and the action is bloody, as it should be. Warts and all, I would regard "Solomon Kane" as a far better stab at the awkward genius of Robert E. Howard than John Milius's "Conan the Barbarian" (1982). Leave your brain on a spike by the door and enjoy.

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