For the dozens of people out there who love the Starz series, Spartacus, but just wish it had none of that graphic sex and violence nonsense… have I got a movie for you.
Milo is just a boy when he witnesses Roman soldiers slaughter his family and his people in 62 A.D., and seventeen years later the now man-sized Milo (Kit Harington) is a slave turned gladiator known only as The Celt who entertains the empire in backwater arena brawls. The latest stop on his bloody tour is the waterside city of Pompeii, and on the way into town he shares a meet cute over a dying horse with Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of some high-ranking Pompeians. Unfortunately for them both, someone else has his eye on Cassia too, and to make matters worse, he’s the same man who led the slaughter of Milo’s people.
Oh, and they’re also all living in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the days leading up to its devastating eruption.
Pompeii wants to be Gladiator meets Volcano with a love story crammed in for good measure, and it succeeds to the degree that it blatantly rips off Gladiator, sets its action around an erupting volcano, and features paper-thin characters who fall in love in their first few minutes together. Director Paul W. S. Anderson’s latest isn’t a good movie, but it’s also not so bad that it’s ironically good. So that’s unfortunate.
Milo is a loner among the gladiators and uninterested in making friends with the men he’ll soon be tasked with killing, but he finds two relationships before the rumbling earth interrupts. Cassia is his soul-mate, something made immediately clear when they bond over the snapping of a horse’s neck, and she becomes the focus of his attention. He also finds an unlikely ally in his cellmate, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the current champion and the man he’s scheduled to face off against in Pompeii’s arena.
The villains of the story meanwhile, aside from that damn volcano, are a trio of men who enjoy abusing their power on a regular basis. Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) is the main baddie for his past deeds and his current lusting after Cassia, his right-hand man, Proculus (Sasha Roiz) is little more than a bad-ass lap dog, and Bellator (Currie Graham) is the sadistic slaver in charge of the gladiators. Each of these three bring distinct human threats to a world where that shouldn’t matter for long, but Anderson and screenwriters Julian Fellowes, Michael Robert Johnson, and Lee and Janet Scott Batchler feel compelled to keep a human face onscreen for audiences to root against.
This is just one example of where the film chooses to go for the formulaic over the dramatic, but there are others. Most of them involve shallow ripoffs of other, better films, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator being the main victim. From Atticus being the poor man’s Juba to an arena event designed to replicate a historical battle that doesn’t quite go as planned, the only elements with any real depth here are Harington’s abs. The love story is one of circumstance, and it’s not given the effort to make it one we ever care about. The couple spends very little time together, and that limitation combined with the duo’s general lack of emotional range leaves what should be a powerful moment late in the film instead feeling empty and flat.
Luckily the CGI effects are well-crafted and offer most of the film’s entertainment value. Anderson knows that to be true and teases the mountain’s eventual outburst with multiple shots including no fewer than eight slow and ominous pans from the base up to the volcano’s rim before it explodes. It’s post eruption where things liven up a bit with people being crushed, burned, drowned, and in one case literally bonked on the head with a small chunk of debris. (The effects work is solid, but none of it or the shots they’re a part of require a viewing in 3-D.)
The cast, which also includes Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss, know they’re not here to win awards and their performances match that lack of motivation. Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the only one who manages to approach anything resembling humanity, but Roiz deserves mention for for his villainous turn as well. The less said about Sutherland the better as he’s one of a handful of actors simply not suited for period work (let alone the task of speaking with a British accent).
Pompeii is as generic of a period disaster film as you could expect, and it’s disappointing that Anderson doesn’t bring some of the wackiness that pervades his “best” work. It’s serviceable, but it would take a lot more than searing heat and an encasement of ash to lock this film in your memory.
The Upside: Occasionally fun; some impressive CGI effects; made me want to go home and play a “quick” game of Civilization IV
The Downside: Characters and situation are never compelling; blatant ripoff of multiple Gladiator scenes; love story unconvincing and uninteresting
On the Side: Lee and Janet Scott Batchler also co-wrote Batman Forever.