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rochefort [Film Festival 10.09.09] movie review fantasy

Year: 2009
Directors: Michael J. Bassett
Writers: Michael J. Bassett
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 6 out of 10

The 1600's don't get nearly enough love in cinema, and it's a real shame. The era of witch hunts, musketeers, and flintlock pistols is a ripe one, and has been the setting for such gems as "Captain Blood", "The Three Musketeers" (partial to the Oliver Reed one, of course; totally badass), and "The Conqueror Worm" (aka "Witchfinder General"). And as much money as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films have made, their success has led more to the greenlighting of franchises based on rides and brands than any real cinematic rediscovery of the 17th century. Anyway, there's something genuinely irresistible about this time frame, at least for me.

I don't know if it's the constant specter of religious strife in the pre- and post-Cromwell era, the fact that this part of European history is the precursor to the American Revolution, or if I just can't get enough of fashion that consists of lots and lots of black, although I can take or leave the feathers. Whatever the reason, it's not surprising that Robert E. Howard, one of the most influential authors in the "swords and sorcery" genre (he more or less invented it), picked this era for one of the recurring characters in his body of pulp work, Solomon Kane. And unlike Howard's Kull, Red Sonja, and of course Conan, Kane embodies an altogether different kind of macho fantasy, less a symbol of burly, destructive virility and more a stern and driven warrior of the cloth. So when I heard that "Solomon Kane", the new film directed by Michael Bassett starring "Rome"'s James Purefoy as the titular character, was coming for us, yeah, I got a little excited.

When we first see Solomon Kane (Purefoy) he's a bloodthirsty, proto-pirate raider. In the opening (and best) scene, Kane and his band of marauders are tearing through an army of "heathens", hellbent on snatching the huge bundle of gold that awaits them past a short series of demonic obstacles that would make Indiana Jones proud. And it's here that Kane encounters a demon that insists his soul is now the property of the devil. After a near miss with death and a quick escape, Kane renounces violence and vows to live a life of peace lest the devil notice him again and collect, living for a brief time among holy men before being kicked out. Kane's of royal birth, see, and the head priest believes he needs to return to his roots, but through a series of flashbacks we learn that Kane's wayward path began when he killed his own brother in a freak accident and was exiled. He hooks up with the Crowthorn family, led by patriarch William (Pete Postlethwaite), and learns from them that an evil wizard has been subjugating all the territories surrounding Kane's own birthplace with an army of possessed warriors led by a masked behemoth. When the Crowthorns' path crosses that of the invaders, tragedy forces Kane to re-embrace his violent past and confront the dark forces that reside in the castle he once called home.

The specter of John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian", the film that made a star out of California's governor, looms large over the proceedings in "Solomon Kane", not a bad thing in and of itself. The first "Conan" film was big, bloody, exciting and even classy (James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom and Basil Poledouris' score are both gold standards for cinematic sword and sorcery), so it's a relief to note that director Bassett is shooting for the same heights, even going so far as to cast Max Von Sydow ("Conan"'s King Osric) in a key role. The costumes, locations, sets, weapons, and overall production values are nothing short of sumptuous, dripping with the sort of atmosphere and detail we've come to expect from high-dollar fantasy films. Every shot is full of fire, mist, mud, or rain, caped warriors fight with flintlock pistols on horseback, and a key villain is adorned with a particularly stunning makeup design. Visually, "Kane" is a full-course meal and then some. The cast, likewise solid, includes Purefoy, Von Sydow, Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, and Jason Flemyng, and everybody seems to be having a good time playing things only slightly over their usual tops.

But they're all let down by a script that refuses to venture even the slightest bit out of familiar territory. Story-wise, the only fresh thing here is the setting itself, and it doesn't help that you could transplant the events into any number of other time frames and nothing would change except the shape of the hats and the size of the buckles. And you can't blame the source text for this, either; the filmmakers have already made it clear that this, Kane's origin story, is a completely new creation of their own making, and the plan is that this first installment will set the stage for later films that more closely follow Howard's books. Characters are given chunks of dialogue that play more like the dust jacket blurbs on a just-average time-worn fantasy novel, and we're not just talking exposition, here, folks. The script needs you to know exactly what everything means, or at least what it thinks things mean. And yes, I know the source material is pulpy and that Howard, good as he was, wasn't exactly James Joyce. But not nearly enough effort has been made to keep things vibrant, and despite all the fine actors on hand not a single character connects, although Purefoy, a fine actor who deserves an action hero to make his own, does come admirably close.

It also doesn't help that yet another action film is full of fight scenes that push in so close and cut so fast as to be, well, boring. This has become way too common of a problem in films like this. We're tired of seeing actors twirl around in beautiful costumes and swing their intricately-constructed props while the camera whips around at such speed that the whole thing becomes a blur. We want to simply see the fight. A low-budget film often has to use such tactics to hide the lack of things like insurance and professional choreography, but this film had a few bucks to spend. And if the choice is between a lot of loud and ultimately disengaging fights or a small handful of expertly-realized ones, I'll take quality over quantity. The staging, composition, shooting, and editing of a good sword fight, gun battle, or hand to hand brawl is an art form unto itself, and modern directors should make a better effort to know their film history in this regard. There's a reason why action fans revisit "Iron Monkey", "The WIld Bunch", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the like year after year, so consider that your homework, Mr. Bassett, before you start work on a sequel.

Speaking of sequels: as much as a disappointment as this one is, consider me very much on board for Kane's further adventures, if they happen. Purefoy stands very poised to make the character a standout as long as a better writer is tasked with putting more interesting words in his mouth and more thrilling (and less videogame-like) obstacles in his path. If "Kane" does well, I can only hope that its success doesn't validate Bassett and company's instincts to the extent that they end up going off the rails like the second and third films in such series as "Pirates" and "The Matrix", especially since this opening salvo doesn't hit nearly the heights of either of those series' initial entries. But ours is an age where the next potential adaptation of "The Three Musketeers" is rumored to be in 3D and full of more CW wax dummies masquerading as humans, so despite the shortcomings of Bassett's film, it gets a lot more right than most of his peers would have achieved with twice the money. More "Chronicles of Riddick" bad than "Van Helsing" bad, "Solomon Kane" still has the potential to yield some really exciting follow-up's in the future, and maybe the next time they'll realize that it's perfectly okay to hold the story, dialogue, and context up to the same standards as the inarguably gorgeous visuals.

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Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

I disagree on the writing part. The lines spoken by the actors are in-line with Howard and i am glad Bassett did not take too much liberty in that departement, to make some contemporary audience happy.

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