Friday, September 18, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: Solomon Kane

For all his cinematic sins, I'll never be able to completely condemn George Lucas. The man reawakened the pulp action-swashbuckler, one of my favourite genres, and one that might never have been the same after the 60s and 70s if it hadn't been for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I really don't want to get into whether those two, and Jaws, killed the boom of great 70s movies, but, um, they didn't.) A swashbuckler, especially one with SF or fantasy elements, can almost never fail to entertain me, as long as it rises to the level of "competent".

"Competent" describes this new Solomon Kane movie to a T. Except for one odd aspect, the movie is about as generic as it's possible to be given the subject matter. Yet I had fun, even while acknowledging that this could have been so much better.

Kane (James Purefoy, best known as Marc Antony on Rome) is the second-born son of a Devonshire nobleman (Max "the Von Sydow" Von Sydow) who is disinherited by his father after he refuses to enter the priesthood. Fleeing England, he turns to piracy, and in 1600 he and his men storm a North African stronghold in search of treasure, only to encounter a supernatural, demonic force who claims that Kane's soul belongs to them. Shaken, Kane returns to England and enters a convent (I think?) in an attempt to purge his sins, but is sent away by the head Abbot/Panjandorum because of a dream he had. Yes, really. Kane next takes up with a family of puritans, led by Pete "the Postletwaite" Postlethwaite and Alice "the Krige" Krige, and finds a temporary happiness. But evil is ravaging the land, and naturally, Kane's vow of non-violence is about to be tested.

While I've only read a couple of Robert E. Howard's original Kane stories, I felt like the character was pretty well-represented here; a lot of new details were added, but as far as I can tell the basics of the character were all nailed. What's more, the grim tone, the theme of penance and the storyline that puts the hero face to face with pure evil all seem perfectly well-suited to Solomon Kane. Which is why I feel a little churlish in pointing out just how many action-adventure movies these days hit these exact same beats. Somehow, without going out of their way to change things (Kane's emo backstory might be considered a bit over-the-top), writer-director Michael J. Bassett feels like he's fundamentally watered-down the character. Sure, he's still a dour puritan who scowls in the face of evil, but the way it's handled he becomes pretty much indistinguishable from any troubled pretty-boy wannabe badass adventure hero seeking redemption, the type of which we get so often these days. In particular, it's hard not to think of "Van Helsing", especially since Purefoy both resembles and seems to be trying to imitate Hugh Jackman. Based on what I've seen of Van Helsing, this is a significantly better movie, but it still gets (fairly or otherwise) saddled with a feeling of been-there, done-that.

The other odd thing about this movie is how closely it hews to the structure of an 80s barbarian flick. Bassett is clearly well aware that he's adapting the work of Robert E. Howard, but he lets that inform the story too much, with a sorcerous warlord sending out hordes of reavers, led by a faceless brute, to pillage the countryside, and Our Hero must carry the torch for the downtrodden people to rise up against etc. etc. etc. This is particularly weird since it turns Elizabethan England into, apparently, the Hyborian age. I realize it was still a pretty brutal era in many ways, but surely there was, like, an army to stop warriors from rampaging across the kingdom unchecked? But then, this is a movie that doesn't seem to particularly care about the difference between catholicism and protestantism when it comes to its lead character's faith--one's as good as another to a 17th century Englishman seeking redemption, right?

I didn't mean to trash this movie quite as roundly as I did, but the more I consider it, the more of a blown opportunity this seems like. I remember an article I read as a teen pointing out that action/adventure movies are all about character, and that a hero with distinctive character traits who inhabits a well-realized, unique world is probably the single most important element in such a movie. Yet here's a flick that takes a pre-existing, memorable character and seems determined to make him as generic as possible. If there's fun to be had here, it's pretty much in spite of the movie's intentions.

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