Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Solomon Kane (Movie Review)

Solomon Kane is a "witch hunter" living in a pseudo-fantasy version of the 16th century. Imagined by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, Solomon is likewise a dark character in a dark world, and fans of dark fantasy waited with anticipation for the release of this movie. Fans in the U.S. have waited even longer.

Although Solomon Kane released in Europe in 2009, for reasons still not made public the film was continually delayed for distribution in the United States. As a fan of dark fantasy I was both frustrated by this delay and made pessimistic by it. I was eager to see another dark sword and sorcery film, given that the sub-genre is so rare despite the success of the Lord of The Rings Trilogy. But the delay in distribution made me wonder: Would this movie really be delayed like this if it was a quality product? So I became somewhat content to wait, desiring a dark fantasy film, but in no rush to watch a bad one.

About a year ago the movie slipped quietly in and out of limited theatrical distribution in the U.S., and then vanished again for an unusual amount of time, until recently appearing on digital movie services and finally, in a proper Blu-ray release. I gambled on a reasonably priced copy and ordered the movie from Amazon, then sat down one evening to watch it, having little idea of what to expect.

Solomon Kane is the son of a wealthy land owner, who leaves his father and brother behind at a very young age after a strong disagreement. He grew into manhood, becoming a vicious, deadly and greedy mercenary. But one day he is confronted by a demonic force that tells him the Devil has a claim on his soul. The encounter leaves Solomon humbled and fearful. He barely escapes and then goes into hiding, vowing to forsake his violent life and pursue the will of God.

After becoming something of a changed man, his quiet life of solitude and peace is disrupted by evil forces spreading across the land, taking village after village captive and committing horrible atrocities against the innocent. Solomon Kane must ironically choose between the vow he made to God and protecting the innocent from evil.

James Purefoy carries the title role very well. He easily portrays the grim witch-hunter, but also handles the role of one searching for redemption with sympathetic vulnerability. The supporting cast is also made up of wonderful performers. This is a cast that, for a fantasy movie, is surprisingly easy to care about.

Speaking of fantasy, the setting is a bit unusual. It takes place around the 1500's, but this is clearly an alternate version of the 1500's, in which monsters, zombies and witches are all real and known to exist by the common person. Witches don't practice Wicca or so called "white magic". They are the classic, fantastical, "ugly hag that can turn into ravens" type. Demons and sorcerers walk the earth and there are no "good" equivalents to counter-balance them. In this world, almost without exception, if it's magic or supernatural, it's bad.

Good is represented by religious folks. Specifically and surprisingly, Christian religious folks. That's not to say there aren't some bad representations of Christianity in the movie. This IS a a fantasy story AND a big budget movie after all. So you do find the worn-out "religious person is actually evil" routine being used. But there are just as many, or more, "good" examples of Christians on display.

I have to put "good" in quotes. These Christians are kind, compassionate people. But the theology of these Christians is lacking significantly. In some ways this is more forgivable than usual, since they are portraying Puritan Christians, who were known for their legalistic, doing-good-earns-your-forgiveness theology.

Unfortunately, this theology is treated as the reality of this world, and the words of a likable Puritan man are given more weight than the Bible itself. He tells Solomon in the first act of the film that his redemption will be acquired by rescuing a girl taken captive by the forces of evil. And in the resolution of the climax, this seems to be treated as reality.

By contrast, the Bible teaches:

(Ephesians 2:8-10) For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

(Ephesians 2:13) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

We are not rescued by our own good works. We are rescued by the sacrificial death of Christ in order to DO good works.

Solomon is also healed at one point by a woman practicing some form of pagan Celtic magic. She is a rare exception to the "magic equals evil" rule of the movie. When Solomon objects to her use of magic to heal him, she bitterly informs him that there are much greater powers in the world than those possessed by his "Christian god".

This was interesting to me, since in many ways the "Christian god" is the representation of ultimate good in this movie. So the inclusion of this "good pagan" muddies the waters for what forms evil took. By that I mean that even demons can grant power that, in the short term, is used for good.

However upon watching the film with the commentary I learned that this was not the intended interpretation of this scene. The director says that it was intended to be the first of many times in Solomon Kane's life (assuming they make sequels) in which he realizes that "it's a bigger world" and his god is not the ultimate power Solomon may think he is.

But if, as a Christian viewer, you can suspend disbelief on these issues, or find a way to rationalize a different interpretation of the film, there is a ton to enjoy here.

The action is well choreographed and shot, though not spectacular. That said this film is brutally violent, and delivers plenty of intensity.

The greatest intensity, however, comes from scenes without action, in which Solomon or others are suffering. I gripped the arm of my couch several times, as the film went places I didn't think they would dare to go. This movie is not for the squeamish, but will be relished by those who like their protagonists to be tortured. For once, evil is actually EVIL. Some may be unprepared for this, but for my tastes it's a welcome treatment of evil that makes its eventual defeat much more satisfying.

The intensity is helped by the pacing and focus of the film, which leans toward characterization and drama. Action is absent for longer than you would normally expect in this genre. But I never felt bored or impatient for the next action scene. And when those action scenes came and increased in frequency I found I cared about their resolution more than I would have otherwise.

The visual effects are hit or miss at times. As even the director admits in his commentary, some of the early smoke effects are a bit "dodgy". I'd also add that the digital blood splatters and effects are a bit obvious. However a demonic creature near the end of the film looks great and a few other effects are pulled off very well.

The greatest visual effects in the movie are the lighting/color design, sets, costumes and makeup designs. Especially those of a supernatural nature. Early in the film Solomon enters an evil lair that looks darkly organic in an almost Ridley Scott's Alien-inspired way. And the makeup and costumes for the two chief villains of the movie evoke a darkly exotic feel that makes their association with unknown supernatural powers both believable and creepy. In addition, the muted color palette and almost constantly drizzling rain or cloud cover give the entire film a cold, grim atmosphere that captures the intended mood wonderfully.

In summary, Solomon Kane is a great movie for fans of brutal, dark fantasy. It's also a good one for fans of fantasy in general. It's filled with easy jumping off points for thought or discussion of good and evil, the purpose and effects of doing good deeds, hypocrisy and redemption/salvation. It messes things up a bit in those areas, but still gives you plenty to think about.

Not a film for everyone, but now a prized part of my movie collection.

Rated R for violence throughout.

Quality: 8.5/10
Relevance: 9.5/10

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