What makes for a good pulp story? It's a broad subset of fiction to generalize, I know, but it seems like the representative portions don't exactly reinvent the wheel in the respective subgenres they exist in but rather revel in it, delivering a straight-faced, entertaining and irony-free yarn with enough nasty bits to exploit the base desires of its intended audience. Extra points for weird sex. Extra extra points if they involve Nazis too.
Solomon Kane the character was created in 1928 by Robert E. Howard, a pulp writer who made his living coming up with new and exciting scenarios for men with swords to hack one another to pieces, including his most enduring creation, Conan the Barbarian. Unlike Conan, who is an often-naked man who devotes his time to various activities like being a pirate or fighting a wizard, Solomon Kane is a fully-clothed Puritan — complete with the hat with a buckle on it — focused on vanquishing evil where ever he finds it. That's it. That's it.
And that's okay — this is pulp we're talking about and our heroes don't have to be so complicated. They just have to do, and in the process of them doing we get our jollies. In that respect, Solomon Kane grasps at pulp, but never quite tightens its grip.
We first meet Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) as a ruthless English mercenary with a Van Dyke, who, amidst some hearty plundering, finds out from an agent of Satan that, because he's an asshole, his soul pretty much belongs to the Devil. After defenestrating himself to avoid reaping, we catch up with him sometime later at a monastery where the Abbot tells him to leave because he's creeping everybody out. He desperately wants to stay, but he's assured he'll better serve the world if he's very, very far away from them.
On foot toward his former home where flashbacks assure us he's not welcome there, either, he meets a soon-to-be hapless family of Puritans including patriarch Pete Postlethwaite*, a cute kid (Patrick Hurd-Wood) that said patriarch could not possibly have conceived because, may I remind you, Pete Postlethwaite, and a young woman who will have to be saved later (Rachel Hurd-Wood). The Purtians offer Kane a ride in their carriage, but he refuses, choosing instead to keep walking. Soon he finds himself facing some bandits, but refuses to fight them in favor of getting whacked on the head. The Puritans pick him up, but soon they run into the demonically possessed forces of the sorcerer Malachi.
Solomon Kane appears to a film all about the dangers of the hero "refusing the call," as Joseph Campbell made so famous, considering how many times our hero refuses to do pretty much anything. The actual plot of the film happens when Kane refuses to fight the evil forces holding the Puritans hostage despite everyone's urging (including the bad guys), causing a quick but brutal slaughter and the capture of the aforementioned young woman requiring some saving. Later, he refuses to help some scrappy former shipmates stage an uprising against the sorcerer, which gets him temporarily crucified.
Because Solomon Kane is an origin story, this means the filmmakers can break all the rules of your favorite genre character because he hasn't learned how to be your favorite character yet. That's why Bruce Wayne gets to use a gun in Batman Begins until someone tells him he probably shouldn't do that**. That's why Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man is kind of a bully, a liar and a smoldering James Dean type. That's why TV's Smallville. And that's why Solomon Kane really, really hates the idea that someone should ask him to vanquish evil.
Not to get all puritanical (sorry) about some fictional guy made up by a dead person, but Solomon Kane is a character who looks for malevolent beings to murder, and in this film he's only ever forced to take action when plot contrivance calls for it or when the movie's about to end. Not that every protagonist has to be proactive — The Big Lebowski is a perfect example of an entire story happening despite its main character's lack of effort — but you kind of figure a heroic action movie would require its protagonist to take matters into his own hands a little more often than Jeff Bridges when he's playing a fat stoner.
Writer/director Michael J. Bassett — no stranger to nastiness considering his other film work, the World War I horror film Deathwatch, the survivalist thriller Wilderness, and the upcoming Silent Hill: Revelation 3D — seems resistant to the idea of reveling in the inherent pulpiness of the material, save for his straight-faced, completely unironic devotion to conveying the story. However, he does offer some really nice lurid moments that legitimately excite. Demons living in mirrors eat Kane's mercenary flunkies. A human priest feeds the living to the flesh-eating zombies that used to be his flock. Solomon Kane battles his own crucifixion. All these moments re-energize the film lest we get bored of him continuing to not-fight evil.
Moreover, Bassett and his crew build an intriguing world in Solomon Kane — an appropriately dreary, overcast and muddy Middle Ages where the Devil is real and pious men rise up to fight all sorts of Stygian brutes, making for an action movie that would actually be a lovely fit on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. It's a story-world created as if its writer believed that all the myths of the old world were real and just rampaging the countryside and burning up villages. There is not a single human character in Solomon Kane that doesn't believe in supernatural evil, and that's fucking great.
What's not great is the Andrew MacRitchie's editing of the film, which insists on disrupting any relatively striking image with a disorienting alternate angle that threatens to betray basic things like visual storytelling. This gets even worse when paired with Bassett's bland approach to the action scenes, which are delivered with a surprising lack of energy, as if he just left the Second Unit Director with DVDs of The Two Towers and Braveheart and a Post-it note that read "Just do this I guess?"
So there's some stabbing (sometimes with a blade in each hand, sometimes not), some slicing and the occasional discreet but mostly bloodless decapitation — presumably to not scare off a broader audience that will not have any interest in this movie no matter how much blood isn't in it. Things get worse in the film's disappointing mise-en-scene-shattering climax, in which a big CGI monster from 2009 stomps around a bit and spits up sparks when it roars. What's hilarious is that Bassett seems to understand it's in the wrong movie because Solomon Kane vocalizes that he can't possibly fight this beast and, true to his cinematic character, refuses to do so.
Strangely enough, even all that doesn't completely sink the movie. By its nature I expected an overlong, garishly CG-heavy, sub-Stephen Sommers affair shot entirely on sound stages. However, Solomon Kane works by avoiding those pitfalls (except when it doesn't) and being a fairly lean, 90-minute dose of sincere genre cinema that, while disappointing any time its hero has to hack somebody into pieces, manages to remain reasonably compelling during the scenes in between. I guess there's nothing wrong with a little forgettable pulp, especially if you don't remember it ever happening.
*Remember, Postletwaite died in 2011. Solomon Kane had a European release in 2009 and now debuts in America three years later. It's unclear why, except maybe that history has proven that the Weinsteins have a weird fetish for sitting on movies for years.
**Once he learns that lesson, he starts staging an elaborate train accident, just like Mr. Glass.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.