Swords, sandals, and sizzling seismic activity are the order of the day in Pompeii, as Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson takes us back in time in more ways than one. Starring Game of Throne’s Kit Harrington, the film tells the story of Milo, a horse-whispering gladiator in the ill-fated Roman resort city in the days before the grumbling Vesuvius smothered it.
Pompeii’s mash-up of natural disaster action and camp costume drama plays out as a nostalgia-laced tribute to the simpler days of cinema. The plot is achingly simple; Harrington plays Milo, a mysterious gladiator known as ‘The Celt’ who possesses almost superhuman strength and speed. After decimating his competition in the arenas of Brittania, Milo is shipped off to Pompeii where he shares a meet-cute moment over a dying horse with Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of the Pompeii big-wigs. Also in Pompeii, being wined and dined by Cassia’s parents, is Senator Corvus (a wonderfully hammy Kiefer Sutherland) who Milo recognises as the man who killed his family years ago. It’s formulaic – the class-divided love interest, the revenge angle, the impending disaster – but it’s enough to set the stage for the action to unfold.
And action is Anderson’s forte, there are some great moments here, both before and after the volcano. Pre-eruption is focused on combat amongst the gladiators, as Milo fights through the ranks to eventually buddy-up with champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). The violence is kept relatively clean in order to maintain the 12A rating; and the exceptionally dire dialogue throughout ensures that eyes will roll far more often than heads. Post-eruption the film takes on a different tempo, we are into Dante’s Peak territory, with Milo and Atticus attempting to find love and right wrongs while the world crumbles. The endless torrents of lava, subsumed buildings, and exploding fireballs are a delight to watch in 3D. But while the action is enjoyable, it is never enough to keep the film afloat. A whole layer of story from Titanic is lifted and re-enacted, but with less likable characters. Milo has a modus operandi that consists of saying little and doing good, and Cassia never graduates from being the damsel in distress. Meanwhile Sutherland’s Corvus is the kind of no-good-whatsoever-villain that you only get in pantomimes. The only depth to the characters in Pompeii is the fact that they are shot in 3D.
When the dust settles, there is something endearing about Pompeii, despite a multitude of failures. There are films that can show you something you’ve never imagined, leave you with a character that will accompany you for the rest of your days, or make you think about life differently. And then there are films that just distract you, they throw enough pyrotechnics and flimsy costumes your way to pass some time. Pompeii definitely belongs in the latter category – it is your garden variety action film – but what makes it endearing is that it never feels like it is trying to be anything more than that. More of a fizzle than a full-scale eruption, it’s a flawed, but still entertaining film.