Good old-fashioned sword and sorcery - but not that good ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Good old-fashioned sword and sorcery - but not that good

Solomon Kane
My rating:




I have the complete Conan stories by Robert E. Howard in two volumes, and boy are they fun to read. It's the kind of fantasy writing you rarely find anymore, full of that unashamedly purple prose that's as badass as its famous barbarian hero. I admit to not being familiar with Howard's second most famous creation, the sword-and-pistol-slinging Puritan Solomon Kane, but when I heard of the movie being made I was pretty excited. Sword-and-sorcery is my favourite subgenre of fantasy, and since the Lord of the Rings trilogy there's been too few movies of this sort.

It's... disappointing.

Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) was once a bloodthirsty pirate, but an encounter with a demon who told him his soul is damned made him renounce violence and turn to God. Returning to his ancestral homeland, he meets the Crowthorns, a family of pilgrims led by their patriarch William (Pete Postlethwaite) on a journey to the New World. But a darkness is sweeping the English countryside. Bands of raiders are murdering and enslaving the peasantry, led by a sorcerer named Malachi (Jason Flemyng) and his mysterious masked henchman. When the Crowthorns fall victim to the raiders, Kane must renounce his vow of peace to rescue their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) - and this quest will force him to face his tragic past.

Sigh. Everyone, myself included, thought Lord of the Rings would bring back fantasy to our cinematic screens. And it did, but only in the form of the Chronicles of Narnia and other children's novel adaptations. Sword and sorcery, the pulpy, bloody, adult kind of fantasy, never had much of a shot at the big screen aside from 1982's Conan the Barbarian - followed by a bunch of cheapo Z-grade ripoffs that upped the violence and nudity. (Mostly the nudity.) Solomon Kane may have been made with less exploitative intentions, but sadly I doubt it's going to herald a new wave of films in the genre.

Writer-director Michael J. Bassett's screenplay takes most of the blame. The writing especially is pretty dire; every line of dialogue is stilted and corny and dull. You could point at Howard's writing and call the movie a faithful adaptation thereof, but there's a difference between prose and film, folks. What works on the page can come across as cheesy on the screen. (This seems to be the season for one cheesy movie after another, and I have no idea why.) There is entertainingly overblown dialogue, and there is dull overblown dialogue, and what separates the two is wit - and there's little of it in Bassett's script.

The film purports to be an origin story for the title character, who never really had an origin in Howard's stories. It's not bad as origin stories go, and it's even somewhat Howardian - but the plot is pretty formulaic despite a couple of cool or unexpected scenes. One of which is Kane's encounter with a priest (played by the always entertaining Mackenzie Crook) in a ruined church, which feels like the most Howardian touch; another happens earlier, during the raiders' attack on the Crowthorn family. The latter made me think for a second that this is going to be a truly grim, uncompromising film that makes no concessions towards audience expectations.

Alas, it was not to be. See, Kane's story is that he knows he is damned due to his exploits as a savage pirate, and he fights evil to redeem his own soul. So I'm thinking, okay, he's a broody, angsty hero then. He will forever labour under the weight of his looming damnation - or at least he will for a good long while. So when William tells him his soul will be saved if he rescues Meredith, I'm thinking, now there's an opportunity to go really dark... unfortunately, the film doesn't take it. And there's also this thing in which Malachi's masked right-hand man - the Darth Vader to his Emperor - can demonically possess men to join his army. Yeah, but the guys he does it too are already vicious low-life scum. Why not possess a character whom we knew and liked? Wouldn't that be more dramatic?

Y'know what could've totally made this movie great? James Purefoy's performance. Y'know what totally brings this movie down? James Purefoy's performance. It's hammy as hell, and ups the cheese factor significantly. Very few actors can do hammy well - Hugo Weaving comes to mind, and man, he would've been a great Solomon Kane. Purefoy looks good in the cloak and the hat, but that's just costume design. And is it just me, or is every action hero trying to do a Christian-Bale-Batman growly voice nowadays? That's about all he brings to the role; not subtlety, or gravitas, or any of the talents you'd expect from a Royal Shakespeare Company-trained actor.

But at least it looks good. Everything's grimy and muddy and quite convincing as a world cursed by evil in which dark things lurk behind every shadow. The locations are gorgeous, and some of the sets even look like they cost some decent buck. And there's plenty of swordfighting action, which is exactly what people want out of a sword-and-sorcery flick - there's even flintlock pistols in here, although Kane has a nasty habit of pulling one out whenever the plot deems it convenient. The fight choreography isn't much to shout about either, but I guess Bob Anderson was too expensive. Still, Bassett has a talent for making the film seem big and epic, which is no mean feat given what looks like a modest budget.

Ultimately, this feels like a film that simply didn't take its source material seriously enough. You just need to look at the Lord of the Rings movies to see fantasy done by filmmakers who truly loved the genre; or even as far back as Conan the Barbarian, still the definitive sword-and-sorcery film. I'm sure neither Bassett nor Purefoy set out to make a bad movie - it's just that they thought loud, cheesy and bombastic is the way to make Solomon Kane. Well... it is, but it's also not enough. If you're jonesing for good filmic sword-and-sorcery like I always am, it's definitely worth a watch. But it really could've been much, much better.

Note: Here's a page of reviews of some of the original Solomon Kane stories by Robert E. Howard. Don't they sound better than this movie?

NEXT REVIEW: From Paris with Love
Expectations: looks like fun

5 comments:

Brain Cell Killa said...

loved the in-depth review.. just what a movie review should be like. check out my reviews, as well.. who knows we might do a collab ;)

braincellkilla.blogspot.com

gwailo said...

I'm glad I saw your review, I thought this might be a WWE movie with Kane as its main character, so I was going to skip it.

Taranaich said...

"It's the kind of fantasy writing you rarely find anymore, full of that unashamedly purple prose that's as badass as its famous barbarian hero."

I have to say, I don't find Howard's prose particularly purple. Florid, dramatic and with a large vocabulary, but hardly "purple." Purple is a term I reserve for erotica or truly bad fantasy novels, and Howard is neither.

"The writing especially is pretty dire; every line of dialogue is stilted and corny and dull. You could point at Howard's writing and call the movie a faithful adaptation thereof, but there's a difference between prose and film, folks."

And anyone who does is an idiot. Howard's prose was poetic, vibrant and powerful, but "stilted and corny and dull"? No way. The script in Solomon Kane was full of pomposity and airs of profundity, not to mention cliche-ridden. I could point to a number of quotes that are like Howard imitations, but certainly nothing Howard-esque.

"The film purports to be an origin story for the title character, who never really had an origin in Howard's stories. It's not bad as origin stories go, and it's even somewhat Howardian - but the plot is pretty formulaic despite a couple of cool or unexpected scenes."

Unfortunately, as with Conan the Barbarian, this origin story manages to contradict the few things we do know about Kane's life. True, Bassett based them on lines from the poems and stories, but he took phrases like "I lead a rout of ungodly men, and my heart was sickened" and blew them completely out of focus.

"You just need to look at the Lord of the Rings movies to see fantasy done by filmmakers who truly loved the genre; or even as far back as Conan the Barbarian, still the definitive sword-and-sorcery film."

John Milius loved his Viking story. He sure didn't love Robert E. Howard or his work, as stated in various interviews and documentaries, making up all manner of crazy stories about him to make him seem more "interesting" and just making him look like a psychopath in the process.

"I'm sure neither Bassett nor Purefoy set out to make a bad movie - it's just that they thought loud, cheesy and bombastic is the way to make Solomon Kane. Well... it is, but it's also not enough."

No, it really isn't, on either count. Solomon Kane is one of Howard's most sombre, conflicted heroes, and his adventures are much more grim than other stories. They're far closer to horror than their other Sword-and-Sorcery brothers. "Loud, cheesy and bombastic" is the absolute LAST way to make a Solomon Kane adaptation.

"Note: Here's a page of reviews of some of the original Solomon Kane stories by Robert E. Howard. Don't they sound better than this movie?"

Dr Hermes' reviews are great, glad you linked to them. I don't agree with him on every count, but they're a fun, irreverent read. I do think you should give the Kane stories a shot. They're excellent reads, some of them among Howard's finest.

TMBF said...

Hey, great to hear from someone familiar with Howard's Kane. I know Milius' Conan isn't a particularly faithful adaptation, but I liked it just the same, so I didn't mind Bassett taking the same approach with Kane. And I'll definitely look out for a good collection of the Kane stories in future. :)

Anonymous said...

i will definitely bookmark this blog.. nice reviews by the way...=)