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Running with the Devil

10/01/2011

The Devil. He’s a greedy bugger. He’s got all the best tunes, he’s got all the details, he likes to impregnate unsuspecting young women and likes to possess the occasional soul, at least if Hollywood is to be believed. Being a committed atheist I don’t put much stock in the notion of a personification of evil but I do enjoy watching films about the personification of evil and love a good diabolical tale. So it was I settled down to Solomon Kane, a film I had been deterred from by a trailer that made it look like a dismal assembly of computer generated effects shots. Having spoken to a few people who recommended it I decided to put my prejudices aside and give it a whirl. Usual spoiler warnings apply.

Its the story of Solomon Kane, scourge of just about everyone, murderer, pirate, crusader and general all round nasty piece of work. After a particularly nasty bit of pillaging he meets the Devil’s reaper, a clunky computer generated special effect that has turned up to claim his soul for Satan. Kane isn’t too happy about this and after a scuffle he escapes and goes to hide in a monastery where he tries to make penance for his evil life. When it becomes apparent its going to take more than a few prayers and a couple of mystical tattoos to keep the Devil from his door he sets out on a pilgrimage back to his homelands to find peace and hopefully redeem his soul. On the way he meets a preacher (the late great Pete Postlethwaite) and his family who accept him into their family despite his self confessed life of evil deeds. Everything goes swimmingly until they fall victim to servants of Satan who murder all but the daughter of the family (who is kidnapped) and with his dying breath the preacher promises Kane redemption if he rescues her from a presumably unspeakable fate. Lots of hack and slash action later he discovers the evil at work in the land is his brother he thought he murdered as a lad who has become the minion of a sorcerer who in turn is in league with the Devil. Then he fights another, bigger CGI effect. The End.

I must confess it did slightly exceed my expectations, but only marginally. From the off there is an overreliance on computer generated imagery that never really feels real. There’s no seamless blending of CGI and mechanical effects (like you would get in something like Inception, say), instead you are bombarded by digital vistas, castles built out of pixels and those annoying creature effects that don’t move like creatures should. Its a shame really because the scenes without the CGI, the stuff in the woods when he’s hanging about with Pete Postlethwaite, are actually quite good. James Purefoy does a decent job of being surly and tortured as Kane, the fight scenes are satisfying if not exactly original. The sequence with the priest who is keeping the pitiful remnants of the slaves of the evil sorceror alive in the basement of his church is particularly entertaining and has sufficient tension even if its obvious how it will turn out. Every time a computer created beastie pops onto screen though the illusion is shattered and you are reminded that you are watching a second string swords and sorcery genre flick.

The other thing that disconcerted me about it was that it reminded me of Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy romp Willow. A lot of the elements of both films line up. Evil sorceror running things? Check. Morally ambiguous hero finds his good side? Check. Mask toting senior minion of evil overlord? Check. The climactic battle in the castle felt to me an awful lot like the fight in the castle in Willow. Is this a bad thing? I suppose that depends on your point of view. While Willow may not necessarily be a particularly good film I do have fond childhood memories of it and it is I suspect entirely responsible (thanks to Joanne Whalley) for my fetish for red headed women that got me into some interesting situations in my youth. Personally I could have done without the distraction while I was trying to get into the climactic end game for Kane.

On balance then it was an enjoyable enough action/adventure film but it let itself down with its over reliance on pointless special effects. With the exception of perhaps the final demonic entity sent to claim his soul there was nothing in there that was necessary that had been done in the computer – most of it was attempted window dressing that broke the atmosphere rather than cultivated it. Was it worth watching? Probably, but it certainly didn’t do a lot to confound the expectations that the trailer had set out ahead of time. Never mind, you win some you lose some.

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