Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Film Review - 'Solomon Kane'

It has always struck me as a bit strange how some things can catch an audience's imagination, while others imply fail to do so. Conan the Barbarian, for example, is a character that most people would probably be familiar with, even if don't consider themselves to be fans. But, a character like Solomon Kane would seem to be all but unknown outside of those with a particular fascination for the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. This is in spite of the fact that both characters were the creation of the same author.

Solomon Kane is a violent man. An English mercenary fighting his way across North Africa with a crew of similarly violent thugs. It is when he is leading his crew on an attack on a fortress that Solomon encounters the supernatural for the first time. After defeating the mortal defenders of the fortress, Solomon and his crew come inadvertently release demons that had been trapped in magic mirrors. The creatures slaughter Solomon's crew, while he escapes to the treasure room. While there, though, Solomon has a more personal encounter with a demon that has a particular interest in him. This demon, introducing itself by the impressive title 'The Devil's Reaper', informs Solomon that his actions have damned him to hell, and that it intends to take him there personally. Needless to say, Solomon isn't too eager to go along with this - he fights back against the demon, and is able to escape when he jumps out of a window and into the sea below.

Solomon turns up later, back in England and hiding out in a monastery. His encounter with the demon has clearly rattled him - and, now, he seems intent on reinventing himself as a 'man of peace'. Of course, things don't go according to plan, and Solomon is soon asked to leave the monastery. With no where else to go, Solomon sets off to return to the home of his family. He comes across a family of puritans, who invite him to travel with them - but, later, the family is ambushed. When Solomon refuses to fight the raiders, most of the family are killed and the daughter, Meredith, is kidnapped. Ashamed that his inaction resulted in the death of innocent people, Solomon sets out to rescue Meredith.

There's a jumbled and disjointed quality to the film, though, that really distracts the audience. It can't seem to decide whether it wants to be grim and serious or whether it wants to go for the cheerfully overblown action of your classic 'pop-corn' action film. So, at different points, it seems to want to try to be both. And, the contrast is jarring. One moment, you might have tense stand-offs, and tragic deaths, and the inner turmoil of a troubled man desperately seeking redemption. Then, another moment, you will have action sequences that seem intent on hitting all the traditional notes of your average Hollywood action film. At the same time, these exaggerated action scenes seem to clash with the dark and sombre tone that is established so well by the film's sets and locations.
It all leads up to a final confrontation which, quite literally, feels like it was pulled straight out of a video game. The sudden appearance of a massive CGI beast is jarring - especially when compared with the sombre and low-key tone that the film struggled had tried so hard to establish up to that point. There is CGI used in the film before this big reveal, of course. But, here, it just feel - and, it ends up feeling like you're suddenly watching the boss battle at the end of the game.

I'm being serious, here. You can almost picture it - a large beast and a room full of stone pillars to hide behind. You can imagine just how you would deal with it, too - you could hide behind a pillar until it attacks. It will probably stun itself running into the pillar trying to get to you, so you'll have a bit of time to jump out and get a few hits in. Then, you repeat the process until it's dead.

That's pretty much exactly what I was thinking when I was watching this particular scene, anyway. It was, needless to say, extremely distracting - and, just another sign of the film's unfortunate lack of a consistent identity. The appearance of a large beast that needed to be killed just seemed to come out of nowhere - which, I suppose, might be why my mind began to wander toward video games, rather than just accepting it as a part of the movie. I feel a bit bad for dwelling so long on what it, essentially, only a small part of the film. But, it was the end of the film - the climax that it was building toward. And, when we finally got there, it did a fairly good job of ruining the experience for me.

It's not all bad, though. Solomon Kane, himself (played by James Purefoy), makes for a genuinely fascinating figure. Purefoy manages to walk what must have been a difficult line with his performance - playing a character that is grim and menacing, yet still oddly sympathetic. His quest for redemption may have been motivated more by fear than genuine guilt, at least at first - but, that also becomes the focus of his development. We may start with a violent man terrified by his encounter with a real demon, and the threat of being taken to Hell, but it shouldn't come as any surprise that he eventually discovers better reasons to fight against evil. It may feel like a character arc that has been done often, before - but, it is done well, here.

The film is also often visually impressive. Sets and locations help to establish the sombre tone that the film is so clearly aiming for. The film's use of special effects are also impressive. CGI can easily go wrong in a film like this - but, here, the various supernatural creatures are brought to life effectively. Even the film's climax (which I have already said why too much about) is still a scene that is done well.

Solomon Kane is a film that could have, and really should have, been much better than it actually was. It seems pretty clear that this film was meant to kick-start a new franchise. Unfortunately, it also seems pretty clear that those plans didn't exactly work out. In the end, the best I could probably say about Solomon Kane is that is that it was about average. So, it probably shouldn't concern me too much that there is not likely to ever be another one. At the same time, though, the film's failure to impress means that we will likely never get the chance to see James Purefoy play this fascinating character again, in a (hopefully improved) sequel. And, that does feel like a shame.

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