Fifteen minutes into "Pompeii," and I couldn't help but imagine the screenwriters sitting around a table and commenting, "You know, 'Gladiator' was good, but it would've been better with an erupting volcano." Despite months of haunting teaser trailers that contained no movie footage at all, the film repeatedly tries to be serious but ends up being unintentionally laughable.
"Pompeii" doesn't shy away from its blatant desire to mimic the 2000 sword-and-sandals movie: Milo (Game of Thrones' Kit Harington) is a slave-turned-gladiator who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a fellow combatant (and cell mate), Atticus (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). I wouldn't be surprised if the screenwriters had tried to add a scene where Harington runs his hands through a field of wheat.
As a child, Milo witnessed the murder of his entire Celtic tribe at the hands of Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Fast-forward to 79 A.D., and Milo is a skilled gladiator who is only known by his stage name, "The Celt." His acclaim has earned him the privilege of being transported (on foot, of course) from the backwaters of Londinium to the thriving metropolis of Pompeii. Along the way, he meets Cassia (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning) when he mercifully kills her stricken horse. It's the stuff that will inspire Shakespearean sonnets — many years later, of course, since Shakespeare hasn't been born yet.
Cassia is returning from a year in Rome, where Corvus has been a relentless suitor. He's actually so relentless that he follows her back to Pompeii. The stars align for Milo, who can now find love and revenge in the same weekend.
(As an aside, I scoffed at the name Milo, but it turns out to be an actual Celtic name from that time period. Go figure.)
A PG-13 rating is usually an attempt to diversify the movie audience and rake in more money, but the film definitely suffered in order to comply with the rating. We have a gladiator film where people are stabbed and die but don't shed any blood in the process, and Milo and Cassia's romance doesn't proceed any further than a long, lingering kiss.
Harington and Akinnuoye-Agbaje put in a lot of work to tone their physiques for the movie, and it shows. Harington needs to find a modern role soon, or he'll be typecast — if that hasn't already occurred. He doesn't do much beyond brood and make googly eyes in this film, so this footage should not be included in his actor portfolio. Akinnuoye-Agbaje, however, seems to have a lot of fun with this role, and it makes one wonder if the movie would've been better if the story had been rewritten with him as the protagonist. Perhaps it's a result of too many years of watching Jack Bauer save the world in "24," but Sutherland feels very out of place here as the antagonist.
The cinematography is rather nice, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius — fireballs, lava and all — looks impressive. Say what you will about director Paul W.S. Anderson, but his stellar 3-D work in the "Resident Evil" movie franchise is practically the only aspect that makes the films worth watching (the other is his wife, Milla Jovovich). The 3-D is most spectacular in scenes with a stark contrast between the foreground and background; this is easy to come by in Resident Evil's modern landscape but almost impossible given the timeframe of "Pompeii." Considering the muddy brown hues that pervade the film, the 3-D is good, although it's not as great as it should be, considering this is one of the few movies that is actually shot in 3-D, as opposed to having it applied in post-production.
Since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was an actual historical event, I expected a brief text blurb at the end of the movie to provide some information about the volcano, the city, or the discovery of the site. Maybe one of the PG-13 crowd would be intrigued by this and go on to study archaeology or history. There was no blurb. Apparently the film didn't want to provide any intellectual fodder at all.
"Pompeii" has grandiose aspirations but falls flat. In what should have been a pivotal, gut-wrenching scene, the screening audience burst out laughing. That's the entire movie in a nutshell.
"Pompeii" is rated "PG-13" and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. It is showing in 2-D and 3-D.
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