Having survived the slaughter of his village by Roman legions, Milo (Kit Harington) has risen from slave to invincible gladiator without once forgetting the man who murdered his family. His reputation earns him a place at the circus in Pompeii where he arrives in 79 A.D. En route Milo sparks romance with beautiful Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of ambitious merchant Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). It so happens the man whose lascivious attentions Cassia longs to escape is the same man responsible for Milo's personal tragedy, newly-arrived, preening, psychotic Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Milo must find some way to survive his impending gladiatorial battle with reigning champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) so he can rescue his lady love and seek revenge. All the while Mount Vesuvius rumbles away in increasingly ominous fashion even though our protagonists are assured this happens all the time, there is nothing to fear. Nudge-nudge, wink...
For years rumours circulated that none less than Roman Polanski and award-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood were preparing a lavish, literate epic detailing the volcanic disaster that befell the ancient city of Pompeii (whoops, sorry, spoiler alert! Oh, for crying out loud, learn your history!). Then Polanski got himself placed under house arrest for past transgressions (it's a really long story, folks) and German studio Constantin Film brought in their go-to guy for the Resident Evil franchise: Paul W.S. Anderson, which thereafter pretty much established the tone. Namely: hack-and-slash action accompanied by exploding lava flung at the screen in 3-D. Of course for punters looking for little more than a fun night at the movies, that was not necessarily a bad thing.
In a break from the breakneck videogame action that has led the uncharitable to brand Anderson as “Uwe Boll with a budget”, Pompeii sees the British-born filmmaker adhere to the formula established by Seventies master of disaster Irwin Allen. First act: soap opera set-up. Second act: all-out mayhem. So over the course of the laborious first half we wade our way through Milo and Cassia's star-crossed love story, our fair heroine's struggle to evade the unwelcome advances of the sleazy senator, Atticus being only one fight away from finally winning his freedom and Severus trying to entice Corvus into investing in some Pompeiian real estate whilst foolishly ignoring dire warnings about the sloppy construction work on his new buildings. What is this – The Towering Inferno (1974)? However, the filmmakers also steal shamelessly from Gladiator (2000) right down to Milo adopting a would-be enigmatic nickname (he is “the Celt” where Russell Crowe was “the Spaniard”) and a repeat of the sequence where the valiant gladiators overturn an historical re-enactment of a Roman victory. It has become fashionable of late to bash Gladiator but the fact is where that film was intelligent, accomplished, eloquent and emotive, Pompeii falls in line with the grimace and slash school of historical romps akin to the recent Spartacus television series, only minus the softcore pornographic sex scenes, more's the pity. In fact the film even recycles music from Spartacus: Blood and Sand with composer Joseph De Luca acknowledged in the end credits.
Anderson exhibits a better grasp of storytelling than in his past work and while the drama is camp at least Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington, doing his best gravel-voiced Russell Crowe impersonation, and co-star Emily Browning approach their roles earnestly. Everyone else camps it up like this was Up Pompeii. Kiefer Sutherland appears to be enjoying himself immensely, snarling and stomping his way through the scenery looking oddly like Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo (1964). Once Vesuvius does eventually erupt the special effects team go hell for leather blowing stuff up with wild abandon. Human drama, such as it is, takes a back seat to spectacle and while it is solid spectacle there is no real sense of loss as thousands lie buried in ash. Like so many disaster movies this revels in the blind stupidity and preservation instinct run amuck of the panicked herd, exhibiting a cynicism for human nature that remains a sour aspect of the genre. Nevertheless Anderson and screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson deserve kudos for sidestepping a predictable ending for a more poetic fadeout.