It's Gladiators vs. Mt. Vesuvius in this "historical" epic from Paul W.S. Anderson



Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring Emily Browning, Kit Harington, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Lucas, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Harris, Paz Vega, Currie Graham. Written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson.

An erupting volcano is the least dramatic thing to happen in director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii, a mashup of disaster, romance, gladiator, and revenge movie clichés – part-Gladiator, part-Titanic, and everything else in-between – that, in its finest moments, showers the screen with such odious cheese that can’t it help but provoke bursts of laughter from the audience. 

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is the one thing you know is going to happen before going into the film, but just in case you had any doubts, the screenplay (by Lee and Janet Scott Batchler (Batman Forever) and Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes)), continually reminds you of the impending doom with tremors, crumbling walls, and long, slow glimpses of the bubbling volcano. 

We get it: Vesuvius is gonna go boom. But what do they do for the hour-plus leading up to the eruption? I can imagine a Pompeii movie centered around prophecies and calculations, where a scientist attempts to save the town but local politicians laugh in his face. Perilous expeditions would be made to the volcano summit, but the city would burn to the ground as the scientist, now driven mad, laughs hysterically as the Gods exact their perverse revenge. 

But this Pompeii ain’t that movie, we realize after an introductory scene in which a Celtic horse tribe is slaughtered by Roman soldiers in Britannia as a young boy watches in horror before being taken captive. What does all this have to do with Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius? Precious little. 

No, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii is all about that young boy, Milo, who is enslaved by the Romans and trained to become a gladiator; seventeen years later, he’s now played by a beefed-up Kit Harington (Jon Snow on HBO’s Game of Thrones), and fighting in London when his handlers decide to ship him up to the big leagues in, of course, Pompeii. 

So now we’ll get to the volcano, right? Those ominous close-ups of the crater, those shots of characters deeply studying Vesuvius in the distance… they seem to be implying something.

But first, we still have time for an endless barrage of genre movie clichés: would you believe that the daughter (Cassia, played by Emily Browning) of the ruler of the city (Severus, Jared Harris) falls in love with Milo after he compassionately snaps the neck of an injured horse? Or that the villainous Roman general who slaughtered Milo’s family, Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, hamming it up) and his right hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz) just happen to be in town?

It gets better: Corvus is around to negotiate funding for Pompeii with Severus, and requests the hand of his daughter in return. Cassia, of course, isn’t interested – but would she agree to it in order to save the life of the slave she loves? Will Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the hardened gladiator Milo combats in the arena, join his fight for revenge against the Roman oppressors? Will Carrie-Anne Moss (as Cassia’s mother) ever get another significant role?

All of this comes to a head in the film’s big centerpiece – no, it’s not what you’re thinking – as Milo, Atticus, and a handful of other gladiators, chained in the center of the arena, fight waves of soldiers in a re-creation of Severus’ victory over the Celtic horse tribes. Anderson has never had a great feel for shooting action, but this sequence is competently staged and executed, involving us in the action simply by allowing us to understand what is going on (no shaky-cam, hyper-editing… yet). 

But that volcano is still there, right? Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. Just as we begin to forget this is a movie called Pompeii, and the hysterical melodrama starts to get interesting as characters are faced with tough decisions… but no. I tell ya, there’s no better plot device for resolving loose story threads than having a volcano erupt and kill everybody. The End.  

Pompeii is the best kind of bad movie: always entertaining and never self-conscious enough to spoil the fun, even if it’s a little depressing to think of the expense and energy that went into its production ($100 million budget, roughly ten minutes of end credits). Competently assembled, well-paced, and never boring, this may be director Paul W.S. Anderson’s best film yet, which isn’t saying much after years of Death Race, Resident Evil: Afterlife and Retribution, and an abysmal Three Musketeers.

Note: Pompeii is screening in both Czech-dubbed and English-language language versions; check cinema showtimes before heading out. The film is also screening in a 3D version, which is exclusively Czech-dubbed; having caught 10 minutes of the 3D dub, I can safely say the non-murky visuals of the 2D version are a significant improvement.

Also opening this week: 

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