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3 reviews, 7 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"Dat ash."
2 stars

Leave it to Paul W.S. Anderson to adopt the "one for them, one for me" model of filmmaking in a very Paul W.S. Anderson manner, as he's found himself juggling an endless horde of "Resident Evil" sequels with period dramas, only the latter can still feature ass-kicking and disaster porn (or just sheer disaster if we're talking "The Three Musketeers") instead of a bunch of stuffy actors doing inconsequential things like acting. With "Pompeii," Anderson breaks out the swords, sandals, and vague accents to dress up a Frankensteined mannequin that's been ruthlessly assembled with the familiar parts of better movies.

After opening with quotes from Pliny the Younger's account of the ancient tragedy, the film swiftly devolves into a pseudo-historical mish-mash that chronicles the tale of Milo (Kit Harrington), a young Celt who sees his entire family brutally murdered by Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Orphaned by the massacre, he grows up to be a slave who eventually finds himself a gladiator in Pompeii. Within a span of 24 hours, his path conveniently intersects with a kindred gladiatorial spirit (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the love of what's left of his life (Emily Browning), his bitter rival Corvin, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It's a pretty complicated day and would be full of complex emotions if anyone could properly emote.

Anderson has rarely required such rigor, though, and he's not about to start now. Instead, he's up to his usual recycling tricks, this time employing molten lava to meld a stock gladiator archetype (last seen repurposed as an absurdly messianic tale involving Kellan Lutz in "Hercules" just a month ago) with a stock star-crossed lovers tale. With so much on the chopping block, it's no surprise that "Pompeii" barely functions in any of its various modes, save perhaps for its turn towards disaster porn (and never has that phrase been more apt, what with the film's volcanic money shots).

But even that feels just as auto-piloted as the rest of the proceedings, as if Anderson himself has grown bored of stirring up chaos. Technically speaking, it's a marvelous feat that captures the scope, scale, and tumult of the calamity, and you can almost feel the film perk up once Vesuvius rains down hellfire and brimstone. It's at this point that the script must have been a blast to write, as the trio of screenwriters seemingly didn't come across an idea they weren't willing to fling against a wall, such as gladiators dramatically duking it out in amidst a shroud of ash and a tidal wave that devours those who managed to leave the shore. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Anderson still has an eye for action, so the destruction is well-orchestrated chaos that doesn't feel weightless, despite the obvious computer-generated assistance.

Unfortunately, it is thematically weightless and an altogether hollow exercise in voyeurism because everyone scurrying about might as well be a Looney Tune, which still might be putting it kindly for Harrington and Browning because that suggests they're animated at all. Instead, these hopelessly leaden leads fail to generate much chemistry--not that they're given much of a chance by the script's thin characterization (in short, he's a Celtic horse-whisperer, she's a small town gal who's grown tired of the corrupt big city of Rome, and, together, they're just a collection of doe-eyes and angst).

In its insistence in once again pushing ill-fated white lovers to the forefront of greater tragedy, "Pompeii" overlooks its most compelling thread in Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Atticus, a champion gladiator who is one victory away from earning freedom. While Atticus is another lunk-headed cliche, Akinnuoye-Agbaje generates the most pathos of any cast member; in fact, his newfound brotherhood with Harrington is much more convincing than that love-at-first-sight bullshit that's more aggressively peddled.

"Pompeii" actually attempts and largely succeeds in capturing the fucked-up mixture of camaraderie, rivalry, and bloodlust shared among gladiators who were forced to share slave lodgings before battling each other to the death. I'd also be lying if I didn't admit to enjoying the film's lone gladiator sequence, which combines the pageantry of theater, battlefield reenactments, and professional wrestling with some decent hack-and-slash that would be more enjoyable without PG-13 constraints.

Considering the haphazard wedging of the gladiatorial angle into the proceedings, it's a little surprising that the film is at its most enjoyable here, but it's where Anderson has reserved all the best cornball moments, like the gladiators' salute for those about to die and just about everything Kiefer Sutherland attempts to do. Simple reaction shots become overcooked dramatic moments for the veteran actor, whose casting here falls somewhere between misguided and unwitting genius.

Arbitrarily slipping in and out of some mush-mouthed accent, Sutherland nonetheless has a blast as the conniving Corvus, who officially arrives in Pompeii to conduct business with a local legislator (Jared Harris) in a go-nowhere subplot that's entangled in politics and bureaucracy; unofficially, he's just there to leer at and bag the guy's daughter (Browning, obviously, because "Pompeii" goes to eleven on the melodrama meter). If there's a hammier performance this year, then 2014 will be blessed indeed, as Sutherland sometimes seems bewildered to even be here when he's not completely relishing his turn as a complete cartoon scumbag.

Calling it campy wouldn't be accurate because that's never quite been Anderson's style. While "Pompeii" often elicits guffaws, they aren't intended; for all his faults, Anderson hasn't adopted a cheeky sensibility that embraces badness and makes it the joke. The earnest bombast of "Pompeii" can't be dismissed, even if it means that Anderson has unknowingly lapsed into unknowing self-parody, leaving us with a quandary: is it better to be in on your own joke or to forge ahead unaware?

Of course, if the result is a film like "Pompeii," I suppose either option blows.

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originally posted: 02/22/14 18:22:58
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User Comments

5/22/15 David Hollingsworth brainless piece of crap 1 stars
11/26/14 Lsp4 Only worth it if you can watch it for free 2 stars
11/22/14 jervaise brooke hamster I want to bugger Emily Browning, great movie too. 4 stars
7/31/14 D. The R. Brain-on-standby fun, more than the pompous, insulting-to-historians "Gladiator". 3 stars
6/02/14 loop Rather second rate but has entertainment value here and there 3 stars
2/23/14 action movie fan despite routing story exciting battle scenes and impressive volcanic devastation-worth it 3 stars
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  21-Feb-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 20-May-2014


  DVD: 20-May-2014

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