A massive volcano erupts and kills pretty much everyone in the nearby town. Yes, that DOES happen in this movie. Having said that, there’s no question that Mount Vesuvius is not the central preoccupation with POMPEII. This is absolutely not Roland Emmerich’s POMPEII, with a ton of premonitions, destruction, aftermath, and then another climax to boot, all complete with people ever-so-narrowly outrunning the elements. No, it would seem that Paul W.S. Anderson has somewhat cleverly found a way to make POMPEII a MORTAL KOMBAT/DEATH RACE-type movie out of this natural disaster, a MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE by way of the sword-and-sandal B-movie. The trailers have barely hinted at it, but this is pretty much a PG-13 gladiator flick. And then a volcano erupts and kills pretty much everyone in the nearby town.
Jon Snow (or Kit Harrington, if you prefer) is this slave from “Londinium, Brittania” (like he’ll be the only character with a British accent, but of course he’s not) who, as a kid, watched Kiefer Sutherland pull a Thulsa Doom on his mom and dad while burning his village down. He’s taken in as a slave, and when we catch up with him years later, he’s got that coif and beard, some abs, and a penchant for mercilessly killing his opponents as a gladiator. He’s being transported to Pompeii along with well-to-do Emily Browning, and the two are immediately making googly eyes at each other. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss are Browning’s parents, and they’re setting up a big show at the local arena to attract some attention to the resort city offshoot of Rome. Their proposed benefactor? None other than Kiefer Sutherland’s evil Corvus, now a senator, and he wants Browning as his bride in exchange for seed money to renovate the city. Meanwhile, Snow is getting chummy with the beast of a man he’s lined up to fight for Kiefer’s delight, so it’s looking less and less likely that they’re going to slaughter each other for the amusement of his orphaner. And are those spontaneous tremors popping up indeed just signs from the gods?
I’m not saying this is the best movie in the world. It’s got some cheese coming off of it, but not as much as you might think. Honestly, its biggest problem is its PG-13 rating. You remember that WORLD WAR Z thing where keeping the gore off-camera meant that you couldn’t even tell what was happening? Imagine that, but in freakin’ CONAN or something. There’s a TON of violence in this thing, on par with any PG-13 movie I can remember, and that includes the LOTRs and the TAKENs, but it’s all so tamely portrayed that the strain is painfully evident. I’m talking slit throats that don’t even trickle, let alone spurt, clean, bloodless stab wounds, and juuuuuust off-camera decapitations. This is in that DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE realm of “I think I’ll like this a lot better when they put that shit they took out back in.”
But for what it is, I have to say, it managed to impress me. For one, because I didn’t expect that the majority of the film would be dudes meleeing with massive battle weapons. I’m not kidding when I say it turns into FLYING GUILLOTINE. The middle chunk of this movie takes place during the events Harris’ character puts on for Kiefer, allowing them to top 300′s lame Dominic West subplot by intercutting the backdoor politicking with cool fight scenes. Even if it was hampered by the PG-13, I thought Anderson pulled the action off well. I have no illusions as to the restrictions of his talents; as someone who’s continued to watch his films since MORTAL KOMBAT in ’95, I can attest to the fact that he hasn’t the faintest clue on how to instill his films with any sense of drama whatsoever. I can’t think of one poignant dramatic moment in any of his films; it always feels like the contrivances of a screenwriter keeping Anderson from digging into the good stuff. But what he knows how to do, he knows how to do. And what he knows how to do is posturing.
I guess you can call what I’m describing “hackery”, and I guess it kind of is. Anderson doesn’t know how to make the genuine article, but he can pull off something that looks like, feels like, sometimes almost is the genuine article, and for a lot of viewers (particularly abroad, where his films usually clean up), that’s quite enough. The one time where he had the chance to step up and really throw his hat in the genre ring, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, he blew it, but he’s created a nice wheelhouse of thoroughly disposable, yet superficially engaging pulp cinema. Lest we forget, his maligned THREE MUSKETEERS whack-fest was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films of that year (personally, I thought it was underrated, but completely nonsensical).
So when Jon Snow and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje start bonding from behind bars, knowing they’re going to be forced to kill each other, it’s not as forced as it could be; their super-confident banter, which wins both of them the other’s respect, makes you actually start looking forward to their inevitable team-up. And it pays off. The pair’s attempt to survive the increasingly harsh guidelines of their gladiatorial display is easily the most fun stretch of the film, and despite the PG-13, the action is fairly well-executed and not too hard to decipher. Kit Harrington has a good presence as an action star, and he knows how to chop dudes up and act at the same time (not always an easy feat). Adewale gets a much bigger part than you’d expect, and gets a lot of the best character moments; I’d imagine if this was done by Brett Ratner or something, his character would’ve been played by Idris Elba or someone like that, but having Adewale as the third lead of the film feels like something more unconventional, a rare treat, and the dude more than earns his keep.
Then, right in the middle of the games, nearby Mount Vesuvius starts spouting ash and lava into the sky, and the movie stops being about the honor of being a gladiator or Jared Harris building Delta City over Old Pompeii, and becomes about getting the girl and getting the fuck out of dodge. This section only comprises maybe the last 30 minutes of the film, and it’s the film’s second weak point, after the rating. In reality, the heat surges and ash took out the majority of Pompeii’s population hours after the initial eruption, but here, there’s a raging lava flow that conveniently and continually waits for the drama to get to a serviceable point before interfering with our characters’ story. The effects are impressive, but it still doesn’t feel quite as big as it should be; creating a believable sense of scale is one thing Emmerich can do in his sleep that Anderson isn’t quite so ace at. Having said that, the film ends on a romantic note which I, again, did not quite expect, and elevated the whole film just a little bit higher. It could’ve felt a lot phonier than it did. Publicists feel free to put that on the poster.
Harris and Moss get steamrolled, but Browning doesn’t condescend to the material and gives her character some dignity and nuance. Kiefer Sutherland is a solid hero (especially as Jack Bauer), but he can be a great villain, and his is the loudest (both in volume and in tone) performance in the film. It’s not a subtle role; he’s playing “the most evil guy ever”, nothing resembling a human being, but he bites into it with that growly voice of his, and succeeds in getting you to hate this guy while revering him as a threat to our heroes. It’s on par with David from THE LOST BOYS or anything, but the film knows how to use his villainous charm about at least as well as PHONE BOOTH did.
If you go in expecting “2012 in Ancient Rome”, you’ll be disappointed. If you expect GLADIATOR, or even 300, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re in the mood for a fun, action-packed sword-and-sandals flick, this is a solid holdover in the bleak cinematic landscape of February. Anderson’s made worse (seriously, AVP is borderline unforgivable), but this is closer in quality to DEATH RACE than to the lesser RESIDENT EVILs. I think whoever decided to put the PG-13 rating on the film did a major disservice to it, but I could see teens checking this movie out on opening weekend. Like my girlfriend said, “It’s got action, it’s got romance, it has history, it has everything you want!” Just as long as you don’t want a soul or nothin’. ‘Cause the flick will come up short.