FILM REVIEW Solomon Kane

Onward Christian soldier…

15 • 103 mins • 19 February
Michael J Bassett
Cast: James Purefoy, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, Max Von Sydow

Meet Solomon Kane, a man whose grim pursuit of the moral high ground leaves Batman looking like Miley Cyrus.

A hawkish supernatural avenger, Kane was the creation of Robert E Howard, the troubled pulp master whose tales of Conan, Kull and Bran Mak Morn traded in the kind of brutish, sinewy thrills you’d naturally expect from a man still living at home with his mother. But whereas Conan’s lusty barbarian adventuring was a perfect fit for cinema – a wish-fulfilment fantasy for every hormone-addled teenage boy, as well as a starmaking vehicle for the future Governor of California – Kane is an altogether different proposition; a scowling, joyless puritan driven by the word of God. Not the most 21st Century of heroes, you must admit.

Naturally you fear the worst. Would Hollywood demand that Kane’s pitiless demeanor be softened for modern audiences? Would the trademark scowl be swapped for a smirk and might a quick, frisky shag sneak in between all that candlelit Bible study? Relax, ye faithful. Michael J Bassett’s movie preserves Howard’s hero in all his dark, godfearing glory. As Kane, James Purefoy only appears to crack a single smile in the entire film. And when it arrives it’s like a thousand suns coming out.

Howard never gave us an origin tale so Bassett is compelled to build a back-story. An impressively staged intro finds us in North Africa, 1600, “a time of withcraft and sorcery”. As British ships assault a city, Kane is introduced as a brigand and a bastard, relishing every opportunity to sink some tempered steel into the locals. There’s a dark Raiders vibe to this sequence, positioning Kane as the shadow-side of Indiana Jones, looting ancient occult treasures for his own ends. It’s here that he encounters the Devil’s Reaper, a shroud-wrapped demon who informs him that Satan wants his soul for a plaything.

Renouncing his wicked, wicked ways, Kane returns home to a strange, winter-bleak England. Here the movie walks similar terrain to such classic British horrors as Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw – a landscape alive with the sense of supernatural forces gathering beneath the frost and the empty fields. We’re haunted by dreamily inexplicable images of bird-masked mourners at a funeral; we see corpses hang from gibbets, carrion for the crows. It’s a world that quietly hisses with superstition. The location work is one of the movie’s great strengths, in fact, though you’re in serious danger of contracting trenchfoot from the relentless rain and mud (a startling crucifixion scene is almost as gruelling to watch as it must have been to shoot).

Purefoy is excellent, West Country burr and all, shifting his performance as the born-again Kane embarks on a search for redemption. There’s a sense of huge faultlines coiling within him and this makes for a genuinely intriguing hero dynamic – waylaid by bandits, Kane is at first reluctant to fight, ignoring a family’s cries of “Solomon! Do something!” But soon he’s away, stabbing and despatching, caught up in a quest for a kidnapped girl and matched against a masked magician named Malachi, a horsebacked sorcerer with a nice line in Vaderesque throat squeezes.

It’s a shame that the film stumbles at the very end. Kane’s final battle finds him facing what looks suspiciously like a Satanic Transformer. It’s a clashingly mainstream touch, the kind of “boss level” climax that bedevils every superhero movie these days, puncturing the movie’s careful atmosphere of pre-Enlightenment dread. There are better scares to be found in the opening scene as Kane encounters swirling black mirror-wraiths, demonic beasties that feel torn from the text of a Robert E Howard tale (“There’s devilry here!”).

If there’s a sequel it promises to take Kane to the demon-haunted Africa that regularly featured in the original stories. For now, though, this is a strong screen debut for a compelling fantasy icon. Purists may quibble at certain liberties but this proves an effective slice of occult high adventure, a sombre swashbuckler that pays its pulp source material a flinty, tight-lipped respect. Even Kane himself might crack a faint smile of satisfaction, if you can imagine him in such a heathen den of decadence as your local Odeon. Nick Setchfield