To give a fair judgement of Solomon Kane, it's important to first put the film into context.
I - as many others surely did - watched the TV spots and trailers prior to the film's release in 2009 and judged it to be nothing more than a horrible B-movie fantasy, fit only for direct to DVD release. Made on a low budget and helmed by a relatively unknown director with not much to his name but the 2002 WW1 thriller Deathwatch, it wasn't looking all that enticing. Due to a poor marketing campaign, it reeked of video game style movie making, and trying to cash in on the works of Robert E. Howard; the famous writer behind Conan The Barbarian. I dismissed the film almost immediately.
Fast forward to 2011, and along came the reboot of Conan itself. Although I have the greatest respect for John Milius' original camel-punching Conan adventure of 1982, I was incredibly excited to see Conan back on the big screen, and curious to see where they took the character with modern effects and ofcourse, without Arnold Schwarzenegger.
|Conan - This picture says it all really|
But let's be honest here - the film was awful. So bad that it barely had any redeeming features. The characters were bland, the origin story of Conan was rushed into a 15 minute opening sequence and the villain was laughably weak, spouting inane dialogue and facing off against Conan in one of the the most poorly conceived showdowns ever seen in cinema. The music by regular Zach Snyder collaborator Tyler Bates was a generic buzz of audio with a barely recognisable main theme, which is even more insulting when considering the epic score Basil Poledouris cooked up for the 1982 film. 2011's Conan felt like it was churned out of the cold Hollywood machine, marketed for a mindless teen audience whose main priority was to see a few heads roll in 3D. There were impressive visual effects and the characters certainly looked the part, but jaw dropping CGI and commendable costume design hardly made up for poor direction and the lack of a recognisable narrative. Gone was the epic fantasy tale of revenge depicted in the Milius film. Instead we get a bland, generic, hack and slash B-Movie with a high budget polish that's supposed to convince us that any genuine feeling went into the production. And with a budget of nearly 80 million dollars, one could surely have expected something more?
With Conan behind me and hopefully forgotten, I decided to give Solomon Kane a viewing. My expectations at this point were tremendously low - 'it can't be any worse than Conan, can it?' Add to that the knowledge that Kane's budget was half of that for Conan, and I was letting myself in for a laugh a minute attempt at the fantasy adventure genre that was likely to have more in common with Monty Python's Holy Grail.
Except that wasn't the case. While Solomon Kane is far from being a genre masterpiece, when compared to its competition, it tick's all the boxes that a pulp fantasy adventure should.
James Purefoy is charismatic and convincing in the lead role, and his character gets a substantial 30-40 minutes of screentime to establish himself as the brooding anti-hero. The supporting cast includes the late Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, Jason Flemyng and Max von Sydow, and they all deliver acting turns worthy of a film with a much more established name, giving credit to a director who was obviously determined to get the best from his cast.
The primary antagonist is a voiceless, masked rider who aptly demonstrates his lust for violence at numerous points in the movie. While he isn't nearly as intimidating as the greatest of cinema's villains, he certainly carries enough heft to make you root for Solomon Kane. What's more, the villain gets a sliver of backstory, which is indeed rare for a film of this type.
|The masked antagonist|
Fighting is well choreographed and suitably violent at points, and the dialogue is sharper and more refined than I was honestly expecting. What's most important is that the viewer fully understands the characters' motivations before the violence ensues, which increases the dramatic impact of everything to follow. Not rocket science, but often so overlooked in other similar films.
There is plenty of religious reference throughout - as you would expect when the titular character owes his soul to the devil and turns to God for sanctuary - but none of it is overwhelmingly forced upon the viewer. It actually works quite nicely within the context of the film.
But most impressive here is the atmosphere that accompanies the narrative, depicting a rainy England filled with poverty and violence. To the director's credit, soundstages and sets are scarcely used, and instead we get real locations mildly adjusted with computer imagery. It really makes a huge difference when you know Kane is fighting enemies in a patch of real forest rather than on a small set surrounded by blue screen. It gives the film a sense of perceptible scale as Kane travels across the land in search of his objective.
Klaus Badelt's music score is suitably epic, romantic and memorable. It lends itself incredibly well to the film, and gives it a sense of grandeur that belies its low budget origins. For me, the score was the 'icing on the cake,' as no adventure movie can be complete without a memorable theme for it's titular character, and no fantasy film can be complete without sweeping orchestral overture. Kane has both in great quantity, and it's worth noting that this is something that Tyler Bate's Conan score is sorely missing.
I could mention more - the imaginative and varied cinematography that puts Conan to shame, the unexpected narrative twist, the costume design by Patrick Tatopolous (Stargate). But I'm sure you get the point.
Solomon Kane is an independent production that managed to muster a budget of $40 million, and 2011's Conan is a tentpole studio film with a budget of nearly $80 million. But in almost every way, Solomon Kane is superior. Granted, my low expectations could have affected my opinion of it to a degree, and there are a few cringe worthy and cliched moments in the film, but overall it's an enjoyable experience. If you expect something with the depth and scope of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, you will certainly be disappointed. But within its own niche, Solomon Kane is a highlight of the genre, and is certainly the better Robert E. Howard adaptation of recent years.
Klaus Badelt's score from Solomon Kane