By Gary Dowell
Behold Pompeii, the feature film-equivalent of fondue: a hot, cheesy mess.
Granted, no one can (or should) go into “A Film by Paul W. S. Anderson” expecting quality film-making, so in a certain sense this historical melodrama meets expectations; the flat acting and paint-by-numbers plot are only exceeded by the visual excess that carries it. A confounding hybrid of action-drama-love story and disaster flick, it’s Gladiator meets Krakatoa: East of Java, but without the epic feel.
Game of Thrones heart-throb Kit Harrington slums it as Milo, a Celtic tribesman sold into slavery as a child after his tribe was butchered by Roman soldiers lead by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, so hammy he should be served as Christmas dinner). As a young man, Milo has risen through the ranks as a gladiator, and is sold to a Pompeiian slave trader to compete in the city-state’s vinalia festival. Coincidentally, Corvus (now a senator) is in town for the celebration, partly to make a real estate deal with its leader Severus (Jared Harris), partly to have his way with Severus’ comely daughter Cassia (Emily Browning). Also coincidentally, Cassia has fallen instantly in love with Milo after witnessing the bitter young man’s sensitive side. Also coincidentally, Vesuvius has decided to blow its top that day and harshen everyone’s buzz, but not before Milo and fellow fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are thrust into a suitably bloody and drawn-out throwdown in the arena. It’s pretty much downhill after that, for the characters and the audience alike.
A lot of the hokum could be forgiven if the leads weren’t so damn dull. It’s hard to gauge the skills of Harrington and Browning at this point in their respective careers; he’s fine as Jon Snow on Thrones, though the role doesn’t seem to challenge him, and her biggest role to date was arguably in the headache-inducing Sucker Punch. Here, they are limited to a thinly drawn, generically romantic, tragically doomed duo ripped from Titanic and characterized by him glowering and her fretting for 105 minutes.
As so often is the case, it is the supporting cast that owns the movie. Akinnuoye-Agbaje is far more compelling as the cynical, fatalistic warrior who counterbalances Milo’s generic anger. Harris and Carrie-Ann Moss get some good moments and an awkward death scene as Cassia’s parents, and Sasha Roiz makes for a great douchebag henchman as Corvus’ right-hand man, Proculus. Sutherland, rocking an accent almost as weird as Jon Voight’s in Anaconda, is the only one involved who seems to be having any fun as he chews the scenery more than the volcano does. He actually perks things up a bit.
Still, it’s too little, too late, as Pompeii is a hot mess of a movie well before Mt. Vesuvius erupts.