The studio pitch for Pompeii must have gone something like this, “People loved Dante’s Peak and they loved Gladiator, so why not combine the two?” It speaks to general mood that this story doesn’t unfold as something fresh and original. It feels like a dusted off script from some sword and sandal relic from the 1960s. You know the kind, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts are examples. They featured great special effects by Ray Harryhausen. No one would ever raise them up as great art, however they were rousing adventures that were fitfully entertaining. Pompeii is very much in the same tradition.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson is best known as the director of Resident Evil and the husband of Milla Jovovich whom he met while directing her in that movie. He also helmed Mortal Kombat which was a nifty little flick that combined martial arts and fantasy. He can be a dependable talent. It was a monetary triumph back in 1995. Though he’s never been a director that gets critical acclaim. Much of that is deserved. But he shouldn’t be held accountable for past transgressions. He gets a lot of things right here.
The first part, the gladiator section, is set in 79 A.D where we meet our hero, Milo (Kit Harington), a slave. As a child, he witnessed his parents’ slaughter by Romans who demolished his entire Celtic village. Now an adult, he is in the company of a lot of other slaves that are being taken to the city of Pompeii by the Roman Empire. Unless they had 24 Hour Fitness in ancient Rome, they’re more physically fit than anyone in that era ought to be. Milo sports curly locks and a smoldering stare but with a dim bulb personality that doesn’t feel the need to speak much.
Then there’s the romance which is de rigueur in these stories. Emily Browning plays the daughter of a wealthy businessman and his wife, Aurelia. Kudos to Carrie-Anne Moss who manages to get second billing for her cameo. She does speak once, maybe twice? I can’t remember. Anyway Emily Browning’s chemistry with Kit Harrington is not particularly moving but if you‘re here for the romance, you probably didn‘t take note of the size of the volcano on the movie poster. Poor Browning has had one success in the beginning of her career (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and hasn’t had a hit since. That’s not going to change with this film. The beautifully blank Cassia admires the young slave for his horse whispering skills. Milo and Cassia “meet-cute” occurs when he humanely kills a horse with his bare hands to ease its suffering. It’s a moment where Cassia looks so moved she just might faint. “I can’t believe he had the strength to do that,” Cassia breathlessly tells her gal pal later on. “Didn’t you see his muscles?” her friend replies. Oh but Cassia apparently meant his strength of character. You decide if exchanges like that are enjoyable funny or roll-your-eyes silly.
If I’m being more critical than my star rating suggests, you misunderstand the weight of my objections. The supporting casting is really good. The face of the evil Roman empire is embodied by Senator Corvis, a hissable villain portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland. He’s the only one who seems in on the joke and he chews scenery like Jon Voight in Anaconda. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje commands the focus of every scene in which he’s present. As Bridgageous, a fellow slave, the two are meant to be rivals. They’re destined to face off in the arena, but when Bridgageous saves Milo from a fellow slave who tries to stab him, we know it’s only a matter of time before these two ultimately join forces.
Pompeii is good old fashioned nonsense. The story is refreshingly simple and uncluttered with superfluities. Completely unencumbered by anything deep or pretentious, it’s the occasional cheese that makes this experience fun. I actually wished there was more. Milo’s moral dilemma is initially conceived as a revenge tale but clearly the gods are not happy with Rome either and the narrative slowly turns into a disaster flick. I chuckled every time rumbling shots of Mount Vesuvius were randomly inserted amongst the action. These sonic reminders of the mountain percolating in the background pop up occasionally. “Remember me? “ the mountain seems to ask. “Well I just might have something to say a little later.“ The climax is exciting and when the ASH hole blows its top, the spectacle is appropriately impressive. Before that happens, however, we get some nicely staged action sequences in the arena. There’s slashed throats, stabbings, and enough deaths that might have earned an R, but the spirited battles are surprisingly bloodless. The PG-13 rating makes sense for a lively production a teen audience shouldn’t be denied the right to see. Pompeii is by no means a great film, but it isn’t horrible either. It kind of exists in that realm and that’s how I appreciated it.