Paul W.S. Anderson has never been a director of story or character; instead, as he had demonstrated with five chapters of the 'Resident Evil' franchise, it's all about giving his audience the most bang for their buck with pure action spectacle. And just as he did with zombies previously, Anderson spares nothing in recreating the destruction of the ancient Italian city laid to waste by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 72, so rest assured that it does deliver genuine spectacle as it promises.
The only catch? The volcano only erupts an hour into the movie, which also means that Anderson has to grapple with his twin Achilles' heels of story and character for that same duration. We won't kid you - the wait till fire and ash rains down from the legendary mountain is quite literally a slog. The fault isn't entirely Anderson's; though the leaden direction is to blame for the cliché-ridden melodrama, it is the screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes), Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever) who are responsible for the utterly pedestrian script and some truly cringe-worthy dialogue.
What they have done essentially is to take a gladiator drama and throw in a 'rich girl/ poor boy' romance in the vein of 'Titanic' as a pretext for the inevitable eruption, with the former relatively more fleshed out than the latter. To set the stage, we see a young Celtic boy watching his parents being murdered by the ruthless Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his top soldier Proculus (Sasha Roiz), both Roman guards whom you know the same older boy will come face to face with later on. Fast forward to seventeen years later and the boy named Milo has developed into a strapping gladiator known as 'The Celt', picked out amidst a grubby Londinium arena for the big league in Pompeii.
Milo's meet-cute with his romantic interest Cassia (Emily Browning) happens en route to Pompeii, when the latter's carriage becomes stuck in the mud and causes one of her horses to suffer a severe fall. In an act of kindness, Milo kills the horse with his bare hands to put him out of its misery, and immediately earns Cassia's fondness. Back in Pompeii, Cassia's father Severus (Jared Harris) and mother (Carrie Anne-Moss) play host to Corvus and his Roman entourage, whose favour they depend on to fund their plan to revitalise the city by building aqueducts. Turns out however that Corvus is only doing so to force Cassia's hand in marriage, whom he unsuccessfully courted while the latter was still back in Rome.
In the meantime, Milo forges an acquaintance with Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), one of the fiercest fighters who is according to the law just one fight away from earning his freedom. Needless to say, Atticus soon finds that his masters have no intention of honouring the law, and instead of being opponents, Milo and Atticus team up to rebel against their captors. All this culminates in a nicely shot showdown in the town's coliseum, where Milo and Atticus take on an entire Roman battalion in order to simulate Corvus' invasion of the Celtic homeland.
From that time on, Anderson's best instincts as a filmmaker take over, injecting the moribund proceedings with a much-needed shot of life that immediately jolts his viewer out of his seat. The sight of Vesuvius starting to boil over is a truly humbling one, even more so when it starts to rain fire, rock and lava down on the hapless citizens of Pompeii, not excluding our protagonists. Anderson skilfully cuts between wide shots offering birds-eye views of the scale of the devastation and close-ups of the disaster from the point of view of its victims, and it is to his credit - as well as that of his cinematographer Glen MacPherson and VFX supervisor Dennis Berardi - that we are simply and surely transfixed.
Lest you think it's all about the volcano, well the calamity turns out to be much more multi-faceted. Besides watching out for fire and rock from above, those looking for a way out of Pompeii are also either swallowed into the ground as the earth underneath them collapses or are swept away by an enormous tsunami precipitated by the tectonic forces causing the same eruption. As if that weren't enough, our star-crossed lovers also have to contend with Corvus' relentless pursuit, while Atticus proves a more than worthy ally against Proculus. Anderson channels his best inner Roland Emmerich to ensure that his disaster movie never has a boring moment once nature's tragedy strikes, and let's just say the last 45 mins is tense and exciting stuff.
Even so, Anderson threatens to be undone by a perennially weak link in his movie, and that is the quality of the acting. 'Game of Thrones' star Kit Harrington is no less wooden than he was in the HBO miniseries, and there is almost zero chemistry between him and 'Sucker Punch' actress Emily Browning. Though '24' star Kiefer Sutherland looks out of place in a sword and scandal epic like this, he proves more entertaining than our leads in a borderline campy manner. The best of the lot is without a doubt Adewale, who brings unexpected dignity and gravitas to his role in a movie that generally demands much less from its performers.
But really, one should not expect differently from 'Pompeii', which as we said at the beginning is no more than an opportunity for Anderson to leverage on historical events to deliver an action-filled disaster movie packed with visual spectacle. As long as you can get past that first hour, the prolonged cataclysmic climax will grip, astound and awe you - and since this is meant to be a disaster movie first and an action- romance second, the priorities are just right.
78 out of 128 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.