Filmmaker Paul W. S. Anderson’s misguided molten-driven melodrama Pompeii is not as explosive in conception as one would imagine based upon its manufactured, boisterous presentation. The heavy-handed histrionics involving Pompeii’s main “rock” star (yes, that would be the infamous Mt. Vesuvius that spewed its way into legendary mythology) meshed together with the customary presence of wayward gladiators, a toothless love story and of course the wrath of a scorned Mother Nature registers with all the dismissive impact of lemon-flavored lava ice cream. Pompeii is a clumsy and convoluted hybrid of Oscar-winning spectacles Gladiator and Titanic (not to mention throwing some influences of Spartacus into the mix) that never quite gels as a cohesive doomsday drama.
Anderson, the auteur behind the raunchy and repetitive Resident Evil movie franchise, dutifully pours on the thick visual wonderment courtesy of the film’s polished CGI fireworks conveying the devastation that took place when the destructive volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted thus ruining the city of Pompeii back in A.D. 79. Anderson’s by-the-numbers direction and the film’s handful of screenwriters pay great detail to the colorful chaotic landscape concerning the volatile volcano but they never quite establish the inevitable fate of the victimized characters nor fortify the pending gloom and doom with any particular richness of tension-filled anxiety. Pompeii simply feels like some glorious big screen accident waiting to happen. Congested subplots about a warrior-slave’s emancipation, concerns about the self-preservation of a princess and a devilish Roman rival up to no good gets creatively buried in the wake of Pompeii’s smoke screen of ashes.
However one chooses to slice and dice it, Pompeii is just another faceless entry into the sword-and-sandals genre whose only credible calling card is the technical impish visual scope of its 3-D inspired mayhem. Otherwise, the movie foolishly supports the ancient action-packed proceedings with transparent character development, dim dialogue and the absence of any psychological depth especially when dealing with human persecution within a grand natural disaster suspense piece.
Kit Harington (from TV’s “Games of Thrones”) stars as a disillusioned and determined gladiator known as “the Celt”. His backstory was not a fairy tale as we are informed that the Celt (real name “Milo”) came from disastrous beginnings. Dastardly Roman emperor Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) had ordered the eradication of a British village where all its inhabitants were slaughtered to death. Fortunately, the young and impressionable Milo/the Celt survived the carnage and would be shaped defiantly by this traumatic experience. The hatred reserved for the Romans by Milo is understandable as they made him an eyewitness to his parents’ horrifying demise. Although Milo flees the scene of his demolished surroundings the boy would soon end up in the corrosive clutches of slave traders.
As the years fly by we are now introduced to a muscular and majestic teenager the Celt whose combative skills in the arenas around Pompeii are impressive as he battles in the name of the Roman overlords that he maintains his longstanding disgust for in silent rage. Throughout the Celt’s travels around Pompeii he meets Lady Cassia (Emily Browning), the prominent daughter of an affluent and politically-conscious merchant Serverus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss from the “Matrix” movie series). Apparently, Cassia is a high-class lass that is not too keen on being smitten by the fancy pants of Roman aristocrats. No sir indeed…she likes her guys hostile and brutally blue collar in the tradition of a mighty peasant hothead in the Celt. Who says that opposites can not attract when coupling a dainty diva with a sulking captive warrior-slave?
Naturally, the bad timing for the Celt and Cassia to hook up is not a good one at all. The creepy Corvus (now a Roman senator) lusts after the curvaceous Cassia as the young beauty is definitely on his hormonal radar screen. The problem is that he is the main menace totally responsible for the horrific execution of Celt’s parents during a tarnished childhood. So now this demented Don Juan has the nerve to seek the affectionate heart of his precious object of affection Cassia as well? As this particular twisted love nest unfolds the activation of the volcano causes a deadly uproar for the Pompeii community. Can the Celt and Cassia escape with their lives in tact as their love is compromised by both the massive rock and demonic misfit Corvus?
Pompeii’s formulaic fury of romanticism and rustic revenge is woefully mechanical and hardly original from a conventional standpoint of a puffy popcorn flick. Fittingly, this movie may seem somewhat appetizing to a majority of adolescents that may appeal to the soap opera tendencies of the story (females) while feeding off the frenzy of the on-screen battles and vitriolic volcano sequences (males) but for others Pompeii merely has all the shock value of an imaginary medieval fire-breathing dragon. The mass destruction is played to the ridiculous hilt but nothing else seems to be as equally captivating in this lame lava-spewing love story.
The occasional confrontational clashes that Harington’s Celt has with the many gladiator opponents has its sputtering hair-raising moments here and there but it is not anything distinctively rousing or memorable. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is effective as the imposing physical specimen Atticus whose heated rivalry with the Celt inside the ribald ring and eventual friendship outside the blood-thirsty boundaries is one of the few noteworthy elements in the sluggish Pompeii. Sutherland’s wicked Corvus looks chewy as a vile Roman cad but we have seen him do more convincing villainy roles with better conviction as in nostalgic gems such as 1987′s The Lost Boys and 2003′s Phone Booth.
Sadly, the damage control in Pompeii is not dictated skillfully by the cinematic existence of the fictional Mt. Vesuvius but by the underwhelming behind-the-scene handlers that have difficulty blowing some dynamic volcanic smoke up one’s pant leg.
Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss
Paul W.S. Anderson
Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson, Julian Fellowes
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)