The Romans give you every reason to wish for their destruction in Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Pompeii,” a campy, concept-driven disaster pic that mistakes the eruption of Vesuvius for the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, where an entire city is deemed expendable on mostly moral grounds. Taking a page from “Titanic,” the film invents a rich-girl/poor-boy romance, puts a powerful suitor in their way and then besets their star-crossed love story with CG lava showers, rendered all the more spectacular in stereoscopic 3D. In short, “Pompeii” is a blast, at least by guilty-pleasure standards, opening to massive worldwide potential in a relatively uncompetitive February frame.
“You’ve dragged me from a perfectly good brothel for this?” asks an indignant slave trader, evidently displeased that the carnage on offer at the local gladiator arena isn’t of a higher caliber. An hour or so later, the same guy finds himself staring down a flaming boulder, his appetite for destruction more than satisfied by the Fates. While hardly high art (and without so much as a fossil record of the aborted project once slated for helmer Roman Polanski and scribe Robert Towne), “Pompeii” certainly recognizes what mass audiences want from a “Game of Thrones”-style sword-and-scandal saga, delivering especially high marks as either a sudsy indulgence for teenage girls or a beefcake offering for gay men.
The pic even goes so far as to repurpose a “Thrones” star, Kit Harington, as its bestubbled slave hero, Milo, known to the Empire as “the Celt” — one of the few survivors of a quashed rebellion. As a boy, Milo watched his mother and the rest of their horse-loving tribe butchered by blood-thirsty future senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, relishing the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps by playing corrupt plutocrats). Now a lowly slave with abs of steel, Milo has been transformed from gentle equestrian into deadly gladiator, with only a small facial scar to show for the years of abuse.
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Talent-scouted in a grubby Londinium arena, Milo is chained up and packed off to Pompeii, impressing an upper-class beauty named Cassia (Emily Browning) along the way. The sensitive brute stirs passionate feelings in the young lady, suggesting forbidden possibilities for the daughter of a Pompeii businessman (Jared Harris) and his proud wife (Carrie-Anne Moss), who have all but promised Cassia’s hand to the repulsive Corvus.
Milo arrives in Pompeii on the eve of the Vinalia festival, tossed in with other gladiators whom he’ll be expected to fight the following day. The local champion is a massive black slave named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who nearly steals the movie out from under its pretty-boy star), one last deathmatch away from earning his freedom — an irony not lost on the mountain, which glows fiery red in advance of the imminent eruption. Whenever things seem to drag at the story level, Anderson cuts away to the volcano, as if to remind us it’s only a matter of time before the helmer plans to obliterate everything he and screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (“Batman Forever”) and Michael Robert Johnson have worked so carefully to construct.
Essentially, apart from Milo, Cassia and Atticus — as well as the young lady’s beloved horse — everyone in Pompeii is expendable, condemned by either avarice or their insatiable desire to see loincloth-clad men dismember each other for sport (in which case, the filmmakers may as well wish volcanic vengeance on their audiences as well). And so, as the digital mountain begins to belch ash and massive cracks splinter their way through town, the pic shifts its focus from survival to melodrama: Milo must avenge his family, Atticus must earn his freedom, and Cassia can’t possibly marry Corvus.
Audiences of a certain age may recognize a superficial similarity between these generic agendas and those of “The Princess Bride” (which improved upon its B-movie ingredients through sheer force of screenwriting). One craves something as memorable as Inigo Montoya’s “prepare to die” monologue the moment big chunks of the mountain start to rain down from the seemingly puritanical heavens, conveniently missing any who still have unfinished business to attend to.
Naturally, the spectacle should be enough to fill the seats, despite d.p. Glen MacPherson’s tendency to shoot everything through a lens darkly — even before clouds of black smoke blot out the sun. To ground us emotionally, the filmmakers have resorted to the potboiler playbook, risking unintentional laughter as Milo breaks free of his chains and runs toward the volcano in order to rescue his beloved, the foolhardy gesture elevated to epic status by a stirring score from “District 9’s” Clinton Shorter.
Led by Mr. X, the half dozen or so vfx shops that worked on “Pompeii” do a stunning job of re-creating the multi-pronged calamity — which combines earthquakes, eruptions and a tidal wave just slow enough for Atticus to rescue a child who has stumbled in its path. While more coherent than much of Anderson’s recent work, the film proves less successful at combining destruction and damsel-in-distress storytelling within the same frame, serving up blurry images of Milo trying to rescue Cassia while the city crumbles around them. As history, it is even shakier, compressing the 18-hour catastrophe into a series of cliffhangers and sword fights.
Though modern-day framing devices rarely do more than make the films run longer, the corny last scene begs some sort of comment from almost two millennia later. Archaeologists have spent decades trying to extrapolate what they can from the excavated skeletons of the 2,000 or so victims who died in Pompeii, as plaster casts reveal people frozen in positions of terror. Milo and Cassia defy the gods’ wrath, striking a final pose so shamelessly romantic even Rodin couldn’t top it.