Movie Review: Pompeii (2014)

Liar. There were plenty of warnings.

I knew Pompeii was likely going to be trash even before I watched it. But perhaps because my expectations were so low, I actually ended up having quite a good time with it. OK, so it’s no Gladiator, but it’s a lot better than The Legend of Hercules.

Fans of Game of Thrones will be happy to know that Kit Harrington, aka Jon Snow, does an excellent job of portraying a protagonist named after a delicious chocolate beverage, Milo. With his parents slaughtered by the evil Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), Milo is forced into slavery and eventually grows up to become a gladiator with impressive abs. His skills take him to Pompeii, where he meets and falls madly in love with Cassia (Aussie Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler.

It’s a fairly typical story about a wronged man seeking vengeance who falls into a forbidden romance, and as such it’s hard to take the movie seriously. But of course, as the title of the film tells us, there’s something about it that sets it apart from your usual swords-and-sandals flick. Er, like an epic volcanic eruption! I hope this is not a spoiler (and if it is, you need to learn a little more about history).

To the credit of director Paul WS Anderson (best known for all the Resident Evil movies, the underrated Event Horizon and the atrocious Mortal Kombat), you never get the feeling that the rest of the movie is all just filler for the big catastrophe at the end. We get many not-so-subtle reminders throughout the film that it’s coming (though no one in the film seems to think much of all the warning signs), but until it happens the focus is strictly on the action and the love story.

The love story is, well, crap, but it’s surprisingly and pleasantly lacking in corniness.  There are almost no cringeworthy Twilight-esque moments, that’s for sure, and it seems quite natural that the only two attractive people in the city should be together. My only complaint is that Emily Browning needs to eat more. She’s basically skin and bones now, and the round face she had as recently as Sucker Punch has turned all angular and gaunt. It’s not a good look for her, but on the bright side at least she has the English accent down pat.

The action, on the other hand, is solid. The film takes a page out of Gladiator and infuses it with a bit of Resident Evil — the moves, not the zombies — to create some stylistic and exciting gladiator duels. Harrington knows his way around a blade having been on Game of Thrones, but he was nearly overshadowed by the presence of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr Eko on Lost) as the champion gladiator with an awesome screen presence. The two make a formidable on-screen duo.

And yes, it is worth the wait when the volcano erupts. I assume it’s all CGI, which is done reasonable well and gives the impression that the danger is genuine and imminent, though the danger really only strikes when a character has served his or her purpose. For what it’s worth, I thought it was done right.

The thing about Pompeii I can’t quite figure out is whether everything about it was intended to be dead serious or tongue-in-cheek. On the face of it it looks like a serious action epic, but there are just hints here and there that no one is taking it seriously. What probably clinches it is the casting of Kiefer Sutherland, who has absolutely reason to play a Roman politician. It just looks like Jack Bauer stumbled onto the wrong set and played along by putting on a snarling and uneven British accent. One of the strangest and funniest things in the whole film.

As for Carrie-Ann Moss, who plays Emily Browning’s mother, it was a thankless role anyone could have played and frankly it was a little sad to see how her career has turned out following the promising heights of The Matrix and Memento.

Nonetheless, if you know what you’re in for, Pompeii is actually not a bad popcorn film. Some passable drama and romance, well-choreographed gladiator scenes, a hilarious villain and sweet special effects towards the end. Just don’t expect too much and you’ll be fine.

3 stars out of 5

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