A mixed bag of sorcery and swordplay, this special-effects-heavy international co-production featuring a character originally conceived by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard isn't nearly as wretched as its expired shelf life may lead some to suspect (the movie had its world premiere way back at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival). And though its penchant for Middle Ages-style moodiness may prove a bit too deliberate for the tastes of some action fans, writer/director Michael J. Bassett (Wilderness, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D) succeeds at establishing a convincing air of fire-and-brimstone dread, and delivers at least two effectively spooky set pieces.
The film opens to find Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) and his ruthless band of marauders laying siege to a city in Northern Africa. Beckoned to an enigmatic castle filled with untold riches, Kane soon realizes that his greed has sealed his fate when the Devil's minions decimate his ranks, leaving him alone to battle the infernal Reaper (Ian Whyte) that has come to claim his tainted soul. But Kane cheats death, and upon escaping, learns that his only hope to avoid being cast into the lake of fire is to walk the path of peace. Meanwhile, as Kane makes his way across England, the sinister Overlord (Samuel Roukin) uses his ruthless Raiders to seize control of the country, killing for pleasure and striking terror into the hearts of peaceful Puritans like the Crowthorns -- who generously offered Kane food and shelter on his arduous journey. When the Crowthorns are brutally laid to waste by the Raiders, who subsequently kidnap and enslave their innocent daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Kane vows to rescue her and prevent England from being consumed by evil, even if it means confronting his family's dark past and sacrificing his immortal soul in the process.
Although perhaps lesser known than Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane might just be the more interesting of the two fictitious characters, and Bassett's script does a commendable job of establishing the intense spiritual conflict that rages within him. When we first meet Solomon Kane, he's storming a castle in search of riches and ruthlessly carving up anyone who gets in his way. Drenched in blood as his small army cowers in fear at an unseen supernatural threat, he bellows, "I am the only devil here!" just moments before clashing swords with the Reaper. Kane is a villain who seems to relish his infernal reputation, so when we next meet him in a remote monastery, having renounced violence, we know something truly terrifying dwells behind his haunted, narrow eyes. And for the most part, Purefoy succeeds in bringing such a broadly drawn archetype to life within this context. Perhaps it helps that he has the great Max von Sydow and the late Pete Postlethwaite to support him in some of the film's more dramatic moments, but the fact that Purefoy can keep us from hating Kane even after we've seen him at his most greedy and ruthless helps to carry the movie through some of its more uneven stretches.
Yet through it all, something about Solomon Kane simply feels too conventional and old-fashioned to set it apart from the pack. Whether it's the fact that Bassett can show a dozen decapitations yet flinches when shooting the crucial murder that steers Kane back onto the bloody road to hell, the secondary villain who looks like a rejected member of Slipknot, or the dull, predictable final battle against a giant CGI Devil, Bassett always seems to be compromising or holding back at the precise moments when the film could use some real innovation. For those reasons, it's somewhat difficult to recommend Solomon Kane to anyone outside of the character's established fan base, although if you happen to be a bored fantasy fan on a rainy day or a channel-surfing insomniac, chances are if you happen stumble across the movie, you'll give your thumb a rest and watch it to the end.