Pompeii wants to be Spartacus, The Towering Inferno and a romantic drama. One out of three is not good.
Pompeii opens with a young lad watching as his father and mother are killed by the Roman military who have, cunningly, struck while his Celtic village was asleep. He plays dead after two faces are seared into his memory. Years later, we see him as a slave/gladiator known as The Celt. His effectiveness brings him to the attention of Graecus (Joe Pingue), owner of the Pompeii gladiatorial franchise, who drags him off to the renowned holiday resort.
Along the way, The Celt helps a horse with a broken leg by soothing it and killing it quickly by breaking its neck, thereby earning the gratitude of Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of Pompeian architect Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), a very wealthy couple. Not exactly the cutest meet cute ever.
Following a day behind Cassia is Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and an escort of Legionnaires, including the champion of Rome, Proculous (Sasha Roiz). Meanwhile, The Celt is getting used to his new home by defending himself against a horde of gladiators who are ticked off because he has a great reputation. He, not they, winds up getting the lash – and is still expected to fight the next day.
Yes, we know that Corvus and Proculous are the men who put The Celt’s name to the sword and that they will meet again. After, you know, getting screwed over by having to take part in a melée in the arena. There’s some subplot about The Celt calming Cassia’s horse after the hefty tremor (Oooh! Foreshadowing!).
After Pompeii’s champion, a large, scarred fellow named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is screwed out his freedom (he was one fight away and that melee thing happened), Mt. Vesuvius starts to make her general grumpiness known. Building start breaking; people start fleeing (Graecus releases what’s going on earlier than anyone else, for all the good it does him), and we learn The Celt’s name is Milo.
Milo tries to find and save Cassia – who’s been carted away by Corvus and then… Then, pretty much, ash and lava.
The big problem with Pompeii is that it tries too hard to do too many things. It wants to be a heroic romance; it wants to be a spirited gladiator movie; it wants to be the biggest disaster movie ever. Unfortunately, the romance is doomed by the silliness of the meet cute and the obviousness of the Corvus/Cassia arc and the gladiator movie is doomed by having only one big honkin’ melee before things start rattling and crumbling.
The disaster portion of our experience is pretty spiffy, though. Flying ash and rocks, trembling ground and, finally, the rushing lava all work splendidly in 3D. You will feel like you have to dodge the flying bits and pieces and it can be a bit unsettling watching the ground break open and swallow people, horses and buildings – or the superheated rocks and ash combining with the tremors to cause the ocean to back up on the city’s harbor. That stuff is really well done.
It could also be seen as a problem that Cassia’s personal handmaiden, Ariadne (Jessica Lucas) and mother are both so much lovelier than she is. Then there’s the knowledge of what happened at Pompeii. That’s a bit of a bummer…
The less said about Sutherland the better (if he had a handlebar mustache, he’d being twirling it and muttering ‘Nyah-ah-ah!’). Roiz comes off as marginally better – he comes off as loyal to his commander, at least.
Browning is so colorless here that it’s hard to believe Milo would ever be attracted to her – except of course for the fact that they both love horses). Harrington – whom we know can act from Game of Thrones – is suitably buff, but outside of a solemn stare that’s probably supposed to read as either rage, or smoldering at various times, his role is mostly about the abs.
As a fan of several of director Paul W.S. Anderson’s movies (the Resident Evil series, his 3D Three Musketeers), I feel sad that Pompeii isn’t better than it is. Everything about – except the destruction – is clunky, undercooked and ill thought out.
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Photos courtesy TriStar Pictures/eOne