I guess we can’t blame Paul W.S. Anderson for wanting to multitask; after all this is a man who once thought it was a good idea to make a Predator and an Alien movie at the same time back in 2004, but in 2011 he thought save himself some time and remake a bunch of movies all at the same time.
Doomed romance linked to an actual disaster? That’ll be Titanic, then. Gladiator slave rising up through the ranks to challenge the Roman hoy paloy? Sounds like a bit of Gladiator to me. Overwrought CGI destruction that overrules any plot holes or campness in favour of digital spectacle? Take your pick of virtually any disaster flick released since the mid-nineties.
So here we go again as the seemingly unflappable career of Anderson continues to give us yet another merciless pounding of glassy-eyed performances and digital destruction that harmlessly blows away a couple of hours, but nourishes you less than an imaginary sandwich.
Despite witnessing his entire tribe murdered as a child and subsequently sold into slavery, Conan-style, Milo has grown to be a formidable gladiator who has been given the formidable nickname of The Celt (or at least I hope that’s what I hear) who has wracked up some formidable kills – in fact, he’s so good as slaughtering the procession of barrel chested sword swingers they place before him, he’s taken from Londinium to Pompeii to compete with the big boys.
However, on the way, he uses his considerable horse whispering skills to calm a wounded horse and ensnare the heart of the marble-eyed Cassia, the daughter of the city governor who has just returned from a year visit to Rome. Her father hopes to entice the new Emperor to invest in rebuilding Pompeii but to do so he’ll have to gain the favour of the seriously corrupt and sadistic Senator Quintus Attius Corvus, who predictably has his beady eye on Cassia.
However, Cassia’s eye has already wandered off to staring intently as Milo’s torso area as this brutal, yet soulful gladiator has completely and utterly captured her heart even though he and his hulking new frenemy, Atticus, are destined to die in the arena.
However, all this panting passion and dastardly scheming is all set to come to a explosive end, literally, when the looming Mount Vesuvius decides to blow it’s stack and become a raging volcano that threatens to wipe the city of Pompeii off the map like a damp kitchen descending on some spilt jam.
Realising that the majority of their plot threads will abruptly end in fire and dust if they don’t get a quick move on, all our players crawl over each other to gather up their surviving loved ones and flee the city, but some deem a giant, exploding mountain insignificant when compared to their own entitlement (*cough* Corvus *cough*) and resolves to be an asshole right to the bitter end.
So, while there’s an awful lot here that counts against Pompeii ever being considered a good movie, the fact that it’s a period piece disaster movie that enthusiastically plays into every dopey genre trope it can find actually successfully dulls the shitness into more of a camp ridiculous you can’t take seriously despite the fact that (almost) everyone is playing it straight.
Take Kit Harrington’s Milo, a man brutally raised as a slave in a world of death and daily blunt force trauma and somehow the man still has the complexion of a peach and fixed facial expression of a baby that’s eaten something it doesn’t like and is currently deliberating if it’s going to cry or not. Everything about his character, from the sculpted abs to the permanently tousled barnet, is plainly ridiculous and feels like it’s it’s been forcibly cribbed from a 1980’s romance novel and matters aren’t (or are if you’re a sucker for absurdly cheesy romance) helped when you realise that Emily Browning’s female lead wears the exact same, lost puppy dog look on her face as Harrington has. However, if nothing else, they genuinely make a sweet (if dull) doe-eyed couple, something that’s imperative when you realise that we’re supposed to buy that these two not only fall in love instantly, but are willing to literally die for each other despite barely spending any time together.
Elsewhere, the always dependable Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaji plays what is essentially the Djimon Hounsou role from Gladiator but with a thicker accent and torso, while Jared Harris and Carrie Anne Moss quietly collect their paychecks and politely do the little that’s required of them. However, just in case you were worried that no-one was going to tackle what is obviously the mutant offspring of Gladiator and Dante’s Peak without overacting horribly, don’t worry because Kiefer Sutherland’s got your back, dawg and his approach to his grandstanding villain role is to act like he’s taken a bump to the head and woken up thinking he’s Jeremy Irons who’s been cast to play Kenneth Williams’ role in Carry On Caesar – in fact, if you look close enough at his eyes, I genuinely believe that he thinks he can actually hear the boos and jeers of a pantomime audience that only exists within his head as he delivers a performance that’s essentially just one long sneer.
On the action front, Anderson delivers a fast paced appetite for destruction that fittingly seems just as interested as furthering the plot as the volcano does and slings in duels to the death, damsels in distress and horse chases while finding various unsubtle ways to keep its cast firmly within the blast zone while still having them run about the place like blue-arsed flies. The big problem is that Anderson seems to think he’s created a memorable group of characters who we’ll all desperately hope will survive when instead they all might as well all be chess pieces getting shuffled towards their doom. Take the death of Jessica Lusas’ distractingly busty servant girl that causes the score to swell and even gives her the slow motion treatment as she falls to her demise; Cassia may be screaming her name as she falls but I’ll bet you folding money you would have forgotten it within the next five minutes as Anderson keeps finding more important things for his characters to do than flee the boiling, poisonous death-cloud that the volcano disgorges in their general direction.
Still, at least the movie has the good taste to end on a tragic note – although the abruptness of it is a little jarring and Rogue One did the whole “everybody dies horribly in a wave of molten oblivion” far better.
Not a good movie, by any means, but at least Anderson has gotten to a point where his films are at least mindlessly watchable – and just imagine this: to do this movie any kind of real justice, the runtime should have been at least around two and a half hours long, something the director mercifully didn’t even bother to try meaning this doomed romance as spectacle may be just as cringe-worthy as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, but at least Anderson made his half as long….