A film review by Craig J. Koban March 3, 2014



2014, PG-13, 105 mins.


Kit Harington as Milo  /  Emily Browning as Cassia  /  Kiefer Sutherland as Corvus  /  Carrie-Anne Moss as Aurelia  /  Rebecca Eady as Milo's Mother  /  Jared Harris as Severus

Diected by Paul W.S. Anderson  /  Written by Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler



No word of a lie: POMPEII is the only film that I can recall sitting through in all of my ten years as a critic that elicited slow, sarcastic clapping from the audience as its end credits rolled by.  Verbal booing and hissing was also heard by yours truly, but you just know that it takes a special kind of wretched filmgoing experience to allow viewers to get – how shall I say it – creative in expressing their displeasure. 

POMPEII, if you allow me the opportunity for a bad historical pun, really blows.  It is, as its title would clearly suggest, based on the ancient Roman town-city that was destroyed and buried under nearly twenty feet of ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  It’s also directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who has made such schlock ‘n awe flicks like DEATH RACE, ALIENS VS. PREDATOR, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS, which would further suggest just the type of movie one would expect from POMPEII going in based on his credit.  Like most examples on his resume, POMPEII is another Anderson film where the actors/characters are essentially cardboard cutout props that are held hostage by the film’s action and visual effects. And when Anderson is not throwing up eye candy on screen, we have to hear groan inducing dialogue that makes us wish that Vesuvius would erupt sooner as opposed to later. 

POMPEII takes place just before the rather famous eruption as we are introduced to a young gladiator Milo (GAME OF THRONES' Kit Harrington), who, as a child, witnessed the murder of his parents by the cruel and despotic Roman General Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland, embarrassingly all over the map here).  As Milo grew up, so did his thirst for ultimate comeuppance, but his efforts are really stymied by the fact that he’s sold into slavery, but while there he develops his skills as a truly lethal warrior.  As an adult, Milo is eventually sent to Pompeii to participate in their gladiatorial games and hoping, in the process of winning, to become a free man.  Another fellow gladiator, Atticus (the awesomely imposing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the only actor giving the film a forceful pulse of interest) also wishes to become a free man, even if it means killing Milo (his newfound confidant) in battle.  



Milo manages to attract the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), who is daughter of Pompeii ruler Severus (Jared Harris, bringing some class to a relatively classless film).  She becomes really smitten with the hunky fighter when he displays his horse whispering skills while…um…breaking one injured horse’s neck quickly to spare the animal's suffering (in the oddest meet-cute perhaps…ever).  Any attempt by Milo to woe and charm Cassia over is made thornier by the re-appearance of Corvis back in his life, whom now has become a borderline insane senator that wants Cassia all to himself, which would, in turn, have great political ramifications for her father.  While all of this is transpiring, Vesuvius begins to ominously rumble in the background, which is initially brushed off by most in Pompeii, but when it explodes and begins raining fire and debris throughout the city, naïve compliancy turns into panic really, really quickly. 

POMPEII is kind of unrelentingly and unintentionally…dumb, and not in a big, bold, old fashioned disaster film kind of way.  It tries, I think, to marry handpicked elements from films like GLADIATOR and TITANIC - with perhaps a bit more appropriation of the latter – with laughably half-baked results.  If Anderson and his writers were attempting to mould POMPEII as a swords and sandals version of TITANIC, then they certainly have failed in the avenue of forging a tangibly moving and involving core romance in the film.  Milo and Cassia become soulmates in the film mostly at the script’s desire; the actors themselves don’t provide so much as a kernel of chemistry to even modestly imply that these two doomed people should be together.  

It’s not that Harrington and Browning are not decent enough and engaging actors, per se (Harrington looks like the love child of Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana and has the façade of a leading man, whereas Browning looks fetching in period garb).  Regrettably, they are hopelessly called upon to perform in scene after scene of cockamamie melodrama that makes the love story in the TWILIGHT films feel like Shakespeare by comparison.  Note to other filmmakers: If you want to make a big budget historical romance, make us like and ultimately care about the lovers.  When Vesuvius erupts, I found myself caring virtually little about whether Milo and Cassia make it out in one piece.  The film provides very few incentives for us to give a hoot about Milo and Cassia, which is its ultimate undoing.  All Anderson and company seem to care about is that dang mountain going ballistic. 

Speaking of which, the effects showcasing the mighty eruption are competently handled and mange to make respectful usage of the 3D (it should be noted that this is the fourth time that Anderson has shot a film with 3D cameras for 3D consumption, which is a far cry better than hastily retrofitting a 2D film to 3D).  And, yes, even though sound stages in Toronto, Ontario double for Pompeii, the illusion is fairly seamless.  The action sequences themselves also manage to have a welcome clarity that many hyperactively edited scenes from modern films lack (granted, since POMPEII is PG-13, the violence is rather incredulously bloodless considering the mayhem portrayed on screen).   At least we have Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje leading the charge in many of these sequences with a teeth-clenched and biceps bulging swagger that makes him such an animalistic presence to help sell even the most limp-wristed of action beats. 

Still, though, POMPEII is a film of all mindless sound and fury that contains a woefully generic and paint-by-numbers love story that will have many viewers checking their watches with too much frequency.  When I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the inert romance that centers the film, I was slapping my knee at Sutherland’s feeble miscasting as the main antagonist, who appears to have adhered to some sort of Bizarro school of period film method acting before showing up on set.  He’s not the most insidiously awful aspect of POMPEII; the final image in the film is a real hum-dinger.  As Vesuvius wreaks its destructive power over the defenseless citizens of Pompeii we witness bodies being turned into frozen ash sculptures.  Two in particular are shown in the final shot that tries to achieve a level of heartbreaking poignancy, but instead inspires many mocking giggles.  

No wonder the audience I was with gave this film a rather unique applause send-off when it faded to black.

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