Unlike John Carter, last year's other absurdly over-budgeted, catastrophically under-earning fantasy epic adapted from a beloved pulp adventure serial from the early 20th century, Michael J. Bassett's Solomon Kane distinguishes itself by not being a disastrously unwatchable mess, which is something. Not that its producers had faith to that effect: Bound up since 2009 in a complicated web of international distribution tribulations, Solomon Kane is only now making its stateside theatrical debut, more than three years since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and nearly two since its European home-video release. Whether the reasons are rooted in obscure rights arcana or difficulties getting a foothold in the market, the suggestion is that nobody in a position to make it happen had much faith that it would ever amount to much financially. But one advantage provided by protracted delays is a drastic reduction of expectations, which, frankly, is exactly what Solomon Kane needs to seem even marginally successful. Because while it boasts the trimmings of a major epic, from believable period detail to the presence of Max von Sydow (always a sign of grandeur), Solomon Kane is at its core a rather modest affair, a decidedly nerdy film concerned more with care than scope.
That Solomon Kane seems a more personal and affectionate project than the bulk of its blockbuster contemporaries doesn't justify or excuse its innumerable faults, but it does make them slightly easier to digest. And what it does well is worth noting: This is an assured, stylish adventure story unafraid to mine the pulp of its source material. Its id-pleasing pursuit of cool recalls, at its best, the unmitigated B-movie jouissance of Paul W.S. Anderson, whose three most recent films especially share Solomon Kane's predilection for grandly staged and extravagantly stylized combat, chases, and magical powers of all varieties. The most glaring problem is that, unlike Anderson's breathlessly paced Resident Evil: Retribution, Solomon Kane gets bogged down by wordy exposition and strained portent far too often to really ever soar, which makes its few true full-throttle sequences—the best of which finds our newly pacifistic citizen Kane laying waste, begrudgingly, to a small army of possessed ghoulies—as frustrating as they are exhilarating. The fight choreography at the heart of the action, which covers everything from old-world swordplay to small-arms shootouts (often a combination of the two), has a gracefulness bordering on elegance, and so it's a shame that these standalone thrills aren't better integrated into the film as a fully formed narrative whole.
On the subject of squandering talent, it's amazing how little use Solomon Kane makes of its two strongest performers: von Sydow, who appears only twice (in what is essentially a bit part), and Pete Postlethwaite, who transforms his minor character's routine death into something oddly close to touching. James Purefoy is adequate in the title role, if a little too reminiscent of Hugh Jackman circa Van Helsing, but it becomes apparent while watching him struggle to keep up with Postlethwaite and von Sydow that he isn't even playing the same game—a bit of cognitive dissonance that makes one wonder why younger, more evidently amateur actors get to play protagonists while aging legends are relegated to the ghetto of the supporting cast. In any case, the presence of masters certainly lends the film an air of refinement, but seriousness of any kind somehow feels at odds with the inherent silliness of the material. Kane's wide-brimmed slouch hat alone necessitates a bit of levity, which the film only embraces when it's time to bust out the cutlass and get hyper-violent. In repose, the whole thing is sort of a drag; its palette is drab and murky, the drama is nondescript, and an atmosphere that's meant to add gravity only manages to undercut a sense of playfulness that only rarely shows through. Material this pulpy ought to be delivered with a grin rather than a grimace.