28 September 2012

Solomon Kane Movie Needs More Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane (2009)
Directed by Michael J. Bassett. Starring James Purefoy, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Flemyng.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane is my favorite of Robert E. Howard’s serial characters: a fascinating mixture of obsession, religion, righteousness, history, and dark fantasy awesomeness. However, it’s the character I love, not necessarily the stories in which he appeared. With the exception of “Wings in the Night,” the Solomon Kane stories are mid-range pieces in Howard’s canon, not at the consistent level he delivered later with Conan, King Kull, or many of his one-shots. Solomon Kane appeared early in Howard’s short professional pulp career, with the first published story in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Perhaps if Howard stayed longer with the Puritan hero while his storytelling skills increased, he might have equaled the Conan series in quality.

But a great character is always an excellent starting point to make a great movie, and in concept a Solomon Kane film should be an easy third-base hit for any talented filmmaker. The 2009 British-French-Czech Solomon Kane, which finally received its limited U.S. theatrical release today (also on VOD if you can’t find a local theater), showed many hints of not only getting on third, but possibly stealing home: Tonally, it captures the 1930s version of Weird Tales. The violence is graphic and bloody without falling into the slapstick idiocy of Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian. The production design is top-tier for a mid-budget movie and feels saturated with the benighted European dreariness of Kane stories such as “Skulls in the Stars” and “Rattle of Bones.”

What the movie doesn’t have: Solomon Kane. This tends to undermine most of the right steps the filmmakers take, as you might imagine.

It makes no difference if audiences know the first thing about the character of Kane or even know the name Robert E. Howard. The film’s failure to exploit what makes Solomon Kane so fascinating spills over into the story and pacing. Solomon Kane is an origin tale that stretches out for a hundred minutes—an origin for a character who doesn’t even need an origin. As James Purefoy’s voiceover at last declares Solomon Kane’s intentions to battle evil wherever it lies, and the hero leaps onto his horse decked with the swirling black coat and the wide-brimmed slouch hat, the audience will be primed to see this strange avenger work his bloody craft. But then the director’s name appears and the end credits start. Sorry folks, movie is over.

Okay, let’s roll back the film to the beginning: An impressive opening sequence has a British privateer rapscallion lead his crew into a Ottoman fortress in North Africa, shooting and cutting his way through the Turkish defenders toward his goal. With the inclusion of horrific mirror-monsters and eye-popping designs, the scene gets the film’s blood pumping right from the start. And then, you realize that the pirate leader is Solomon Kane (if you didn’t already recognize actor James Purefoy), and this sequence serves to set up the character as a man whose “soul is damned!” (A phrase that gets repeated a few too many times throughout the movie.) Suddenly, the entire film simply feels wrong, and worse, ordinary.

For some famous characters, the origin is a full journey, the complete story. But some heroes don’t require them, and trying to fashion one for them only delays from getting to what people really want to see them do. Sherlock Holmes does not need an origin story. Philip Marlowe does not need an origin story. James Bond does not need an origin story. And… Solomon Kane does not need an origin story.

Robert E. Howard’s stories and poems only provide tantalizing hints about Solomon Kane’s background and his intersection with historical events. He didn’t have an “origin,” and he certainly didn’t have the Devil’s Reaper tell him he was bound for Hell, forcing him to fight to regain his soul. Much of the character’s power comes from his “inscrutable goodness,” a man who fights for God as if he were the Devil. The script for Solomon Kane robs Kane of his mystery during the first five minutes, making just another “dark hero” figure like too many on the theater screens today. It’s Solomon Kane confused with Elric.

However, the movie might have overcome this problem if it got Kane to his puritanism and fanaticism faster. But it keeps dragging its feet, stuck in building the character’s motivations until it’s too late to use the character. Flashbacks to Kane’s boyhood start presenting a second layer of an origin story, which is unnecessary except to loop back in the finale to explain the villains in an unsatisfactory fashion. Returning to the present, Kane in this story isn’t a Puritan at all, he’s only Puritan-adjacent. After getting expelled from a monastery and surviving a robbing, Kane takes shelter with a traveling Puritan family for a spell (led by the late Pete Postlethwaite, who could have made a superb Solomon Kane a decade ago).  Only after the family gets wiped out of the picture with pretty daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) the sole surivor does Kane then takes up the Puritan’s clothing and hat. I call “not a Puritan,” and therefore “not Solomon Kane.”

But this is still not the end of the origin story. Kane goes on a quest to rescue the kidnapped girl because it will restore his soul (not sure why, but if Pete Postlethwaite says so…), but he makes little headway and eventually forms a team to attack the castle of the evil sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), frustratingly giving the audience a character grasping to find what he’s about, and only figuring it out in the final moments. As I said, you don’t need to know Robert E. Howard’s character to find this sputtering around in neutral annoying.

By the way, no juju stick. I have no idea why the filmmakers opted to keep the shaman N’Longa out of the story. Since the plot takes Kane to Africa anyway, it seems wasteful to abandon this key part of Solomon Kane’s mythology.

It’s never clear exactly what evil Kane is facing. Wicked sorcerer Malachi remains a nobody, even when tied clumsily into Kane’s past, and his enslaved legions and their “Leatherface” captain called the Masked Rider remain a nebulous threat almost the very end, when a pretty damn cool giant iron-and-fire monster faces off with the hero and upstages everyone.

All this feels extra disappointing because director Michael J. Bassett clearly possesses the skill-set to create a great Robert E. Howard adaptation. The action doesn’t work on a story level, but the execution is superb, with the right amount of ferocious bloodletting. Bassett stages a few interesting scenes with a good eye for visuals, including an apparently obligatory nod to “Conan gets crucified” from “A Witch Shall Be Born.” The most impressive scene is a gruesome horror bit in an abandoned church that feels the most like a Weird Tales story than anything else on screen. The whole movie is filled with bleak, foggy, and craggy images that meld classic Hammer Horror with modern Gothic filmmaking. I can’t say enough about the superior production design, from a Moorish fortress to a medieval Devonshire castle. It’s ideal for Solomon Kane. James Purefoy gives a tortured and glowering performance as well, and definitely has the potential to nail the character.

Yet little of this matters with a story and character that never get in motion. The prologue of the movie should have introduced the villain of the piece who loses his soul, then have Kane appear full-blown afterwards, as he does in Howard’s stories, and send him slashing through evil with his beautifully harsh interpretation of “good.” Although not the best of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, “Red Shadows” offers an ideal structure for a feature-length movie, and could have fit with the basic story outlined in this movie.

While I watched Solomon Kane and tried to come to grips with why it wasn’t working for me despite all its visual accuracy and filmmaking talent on display, I flashed back to my review of Dredd from last week. That movie knew its tough-guy hero required no backstory, and so provided a secondary character to help create an arc. It worked there, and this is exactly what Solomon Kane needs: a main character who is archetypal and mysterious with a strong supporting character to broaden the story for a ninety-minute-plus running time. A good model within Robert E. Howard’s work is the Conan story “Beyond the Black River,” where the young settler Balthus becomes co-hero of the story with Conan. Rachel Hurd-Wood should’ve played that character for Kane, but she gets relegated to sitting in a cage screaming most of the time as yet another boring damsel-in-distress. Kane’s other allies don’t materialize until far later in the movie, after the damage has been done.

I hope Bassett gets to mount his sequel—although the movie’s long-delayed U.S. release instills no confidence this will happen—because a second movie can simply ignore all the origin material and send Kane off on his bloody way, hopefully to Africa to battle winged monsters. The potential for greatness is all here, and that makes Solomon Kane’s failure to give either the title character or an exciting story to Howard fans or general moviegoers feel bitter indeed.