Late Review: POMPEII

Pompeii, now out on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD, may be worth your time if you have a love of maddeningly terrible cinema.

Pompeii is a vapid combination of the films Gladiator, Titanic, and Volcano, all rolled into one historically inept package.  There is not a single original idea during the course of its 105 minute runtime.  Instead, Pompeii is content to outright steal from better movies (yes, even Volcano looks like a great achievement when compared to this) while reveling in the glory of steroid-induced eight-pack abs, gaudy digitally created satin-laced environments, and disappointingly bloodless gladiatorial combat.  Its shockingly unapologetic stupidity is matched only by its video game-level CGI relentlessness that culminates in one of the most howl-inducing shots ever put on the big screen – hint: the poster for this schlock fest pretty much gives the ending of the movie away.  Director Paul W.S. Anderson is well-known for his so-bad-it-just-might-be-good films, but Pompeii is a disaster on an entirely different level and for that reason alone it’s almost worth recommending.

The film takes place in 79 A.D. where a slave turned gladiator named Milo (played to comical, brooding effect by Game of Thrones’s Kit Harrington) is brought to Pompeii to fight in the games, only to find love at first sight with the city ruler’s daughter Cassia (a lost, but determined Emily Browning).  Of course, Cassia is coveted by a brutal Roman senator named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) who just so happened to slaughter Milo’s entire village when he was a boy.  There is some political gamesmanship that takes shape in the story’s background, but it is largely forgotten in favor of bashing swords and doe-eyed looks of longing.  There is also the supporting character of Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to deal with, who is on the verge of gaining his freedom after one last fight with Milo in the arena.  Needless to say that freedom never comes (Romans are evil!) and the two become the best of bosom buddies instead.  Oh yes, and there is also this giant volcano called Mt. Vesuvius that is about to erupt at any moment and send down a shower storm of fire, lava, pain, death and destruction.  It sort of makes everything else going on in this paragraph seem immaterial don’t you think?

The acting in Pompeii is on a level that few knowing parodies could ever hope to replicate. Harrington plays Milo like Jon Snow on roids, with a little Russell Crowe from Gladiator speechifying thrown in for good measure.  He broods, he sulks, he commands politely, and he seems far more concerned with flexing his ab muscles than giving anything that equates to real human emotion.  He is a pin-up boy of the highest order and though he has always been the weakest link in HBO’s unstoppable Game of Thrones, he remains convincing enough as part of a larger ensemble.  Pompeii proves that Mr. Harrington just doesn’t have the goods to be a true leading man, and it’s a shame as this 3D spectacle so desperately needs one.  Emily Browning certainly has the pursed lip routine down, but she has more chemistry with her female slave servant than she does with Kit Harrington’s ripped torso.

Yet the performance that is truly unforgettable in its audacious awfulness is that of Kiefer Sutherland as the ruthless Corvus.  Corvus has more in common with Titanic’s weary supervillain Cal Hockley than he does with any plausible historic Roman authority figure.  Sutherland sports an affected accent straight out of Bond movie villainy, he struts and sputters, spits out vile dialogue like me might choke on it, and revels in his own pomposity like a middle schooler attempting Shakespeare for the first time.  The performance reads like a mockery of all the old-school sword and sandal epics.  Perhaps Mr. Sutherland is simply the only actor aware of the garbage he is appearing in, and is doing his damnedest to live up to it.

Paul W.S. Anderson is not a subtle director, and his love of the grandiose could definitely service a picture like Pompeii, but he also is a director with no sense of romance or intimacy and this shoddy script by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, & Michael Robert Johnson requires all three attributes.  Anderson is content to let his camera fly endlessly around his CGI depiction of Pompeii that makes Ridley Scott’s vision of Rome in Gladiator seem quaint.  Anderson can never commit to the small moments because he is all too anxious to get to the explosions.  And perhaps with a director suffering from apparent ADHD it would have been more appropriate to create a pure disaster picture on the level of Roland Emmerich, but even he proved with Anonymous that he could supplement the extravagant with a touch of humanity.  Anderson just doesn’t have that in him and even when the opulent destruction does occur, it feels remarkably inconsequential.  And that is exactly what makes the film’s final moments so outright hysterical – he hasn’t earned that eternal kiss bathed in fire and ash.  It reads as self-parody, not tear-jerking character finality.

If you go into Pompeii knowing what you are in for, then it could potentially be a good time had by all.  Just do like the Romans do and gorge yourself on food and wine and give in to the absurdity.  Or better yet, watch a Roland Emmerich picture.  His films may be just as stupid, but he completely owns his style and penchant for bombast which is much more than could ever be said for Paul W.S. Anderson.

Grade: D-

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