Pompeii: Film Review

Fire in the hole.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson ("Resident Evil") tackles history's most infamous volcanic disaster in an action-romance starring Kit Harington ("Game of Thrones") and Emily Browning ("Sucker Punch").

The lava flows by the ton, as does the cheese, in Pompeii, a kitschy apocalyptic peplum whose visual epiphanies -- of which there are definitely a few -- cannot outdo a B- (or C- or D-) grade scenario that will have lots of eyes rolling by the time the big stack finally blows. Not that one would expect less from Resident Evil mastermind Paul W.S. Anderson, who clearly seems to be getting off on the massive destruction that this $100 million effects extravaganza allows him to unleash onscreen. But with a central love story that feels contrived from the very first note, the major pleasure here is seeing it all blown to smithereens as quickly as possible, resulting in a movie that will have far less staying power than Pompeii's infamous ash-covered victims.

With Sony's TriStar rolling out the film in the U.S. this Friday and facing little new competition, the Germany-Canada co-production could make a fast killing in its first frame, though it won’t stick around for long. Pompeii's overall theatrical gross could outperform Anderson’s The Three Musketeers but probably won’t reach Evil levels, while steady ancillary returns are a given.

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Roman Polanski was originally slated to adapt novelist Robert Harris’ take on the ancient natural disaster, which took place in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius violently erupted, spewing out enough lava and ash to decimate the nearby Roman city of Pompeii and kill off most of its population (estimated at around 15,000).

One can only imagine how the Polanski-Harris version would have fared up against this explosive but awfully generic offering from Anderson and writers Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes), Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (the duo behind Batman Forever, one of the worst Batman movies), who borrow lavishly from Gladiator, Spartacus and even The Horse Whisperer to concoct a storyline that’s merely an elaborate pretext for all the fire and brimstone.

A flashback features a young Celtic boy watching his parents slaughtered at the hands of the ruthless Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his top soldier Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Seventeen years later, that boy has grown up to become a strapping gladiator known as “The Celt” but named Milo (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington, sporting way too much hair gel for a Roman slave), and is soon shipped off to the southern city of Pompeii to serve as violent entertainment for the blood-hungry plebeians.

On the way, he makes a major impression on Cassia (Emily Browning), the waifish daughter of town chief Severus (Jared Harris, Mad Men) and wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), who’s heading back home after spending a rather turbulent year in Rome, which her parents make sound like some sort of decadent party school. Also arriving is Corvus, now a senator for Emperor Titus and in charge of deciding whether the capital will invest in Pompeii’s much-needed urban improvements.

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With all the characters -- including a fellow slave fighter, Atticus (Adewale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje), whom Milo befriends in gladiator prison -- converging on the coastal burb just as Vesuvius starts making its first rumbles, it’s clear by the second reel where things are headed, and the script never once deters from a routine plot that plays like it’s literally been written in stone. This especially holds true for the burgeoning romance between Milo and Cassia, whom the former woos by taming, or breaking the neck of, a horse, when he’s not stripping down to show off his killer pecs and abs.

Since the backstory plays out as mere filler, one can only wait for the volcano to erupt, but Anderson delays the big moment for at least an hour. Just beforehand, he delivers one of his better set pieces, with Milo and Atticus fending off an entire Roman battalion as the city cheers on at the local arena, the two muscle-bound warriors cutting their way through many a throat in the most PG-13 way imaginable.

Once Vesuvius blows, it’s off to the races (well, chariot races), with slaves and citizens alike dashing for the seas as megabombs of fire, rock and lava tear the town to pieces, leaving little hope for escape and wasting more marble than a Beverly Hills bathtub. These moments are clearly where Anderson thrives, cutting between distant birds-eye views of the devastation below and action-packed snippets where DP Glen MacPherson and VFX supervisor Dennis Berardi shoot tons of smoke and ash right into our faces.

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As if that weren’t enough, there are also several deadly sword fights, horse chases and one killer tsunami that sends all the corpses and rubble back in the other direction. It’s apocalypse overdose for sure, but like most CG mass destructions, sometimes beautiful to behold, even if the pounding sound design (by Stephen Barden) and score (by Clinton Shorter, 2 Guns) hardly give us space to sit back and admire the scenery.

Unfortunately, the love story soon comes back around to spoil all the fun, and while Anderson excels in the film’s many moments of digital doom-and-gloom, he can’t deliver a single authentic emotion between the two star-crossed leads, leaving us with a sooty aftertaste of having sat through one very loud rendition of Titanic in togas.

Tech credits are top-notch, with sets by production designer Paul Denham Austerberry doing a great job laying out Pompeii's elaborate urban plan. 3D is actually a plus here, especially when the mayhem begins.

Production companies: Constantin Film International, Impact Pictures (Pompeii)
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Screenwriters: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Producers: Jeremy Bolt, Paul W.S. Anderson, Robert Kulzer, Don Carmody
Executive producers: Martin Moszkowicz, Peter Schlessel, Jon Brown
Director of photography: Glen MacPherson
Production designer: Paul Denham Austerberry
Costume designer: Wendy Partridge
Editor: Michele Conroy
Music: Clinton Shorter
Visual effects supervisor: Dennis Berardi
Sales: Summit Entertainment

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes