Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson of the Resident Evil flicks, Pompeii begins with a few onscreen lines from Pliny the Younger, powerfully describing the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius that buried the title city and many of its inhabitants in 79 A.D. Pliny had witnessed the sudden event, which centuries later would provide archeologists with a snapshot of provincial Roman life, at the age of 17. It so happened I had reread Pliny’s account the afternoon before the screening, in anticipation of the movie.
Rather optimistically I suppose, I was holding out some dim hope that Pliny and his famous uncle Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption, might be characters in the new film. They aren’t, but the stock figures and melodramatic clichés out of which the film is made date back farther than the disaster itself.
Well, OK, maybe most of the motifs date from as recently as Gladiator and Spartacus and the spaghetti westerns and, especially, Titanic. Like that film, Pompeii takes place against the backdrop of a horrific catastrophe the popular perception of which has grown quaint and even romanticized with historical distance. Also like Cameron’s film, it’s built around star-crossed lovers—Cassia (Emily Browning), a patrician girl, and Milo (Kit Harington), a pouty-looking Celt gladiator brought to Pompeii to fight at a festival. Both, for very different reasons—both connected to the same person, however—bear Rome a grudge.
Neither are particularly interesting characters. Harington is on a show I haven’t watched called Game of Thrones, and he’s lively enough, but the character is storybook simple—brave and innately gallant, despite a life of brutal bondage. He’s even a horse whisperer. The nymph-like Browning gets even less to play as the noble and egalitarian Cassia.
As is usually the case, the real fun in Pompeii comes from the supporting cast, and from the wild spectacle, and plenty of fun they both provide. Once it gets going, the movie is an utterly headlong, non-stop ride, so feverishly paced that it becomes funny. Happily, the actors manage not to get crushed (unless the script requires it). Jared Harris is excellent as Cassia’s weakling Dad, a would-be urban developer of a sort not remotely unfamiliar here in Phoenix, who’s trying to smooch the butts of the investors from Rome. Boy are he, and they, in for a surprise.
Carrie-Anne Moss is serviceable as Cassia’s Mom, and Jessica Lucas was, I thought, cuter than the heroine as Cassia’s servant and BFF. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is imposing as always as a gladiator who must kill Milo to earn his freedom; they of course become pals. But the real juice in the cast comes from the bad guys—Kiefer Sutherland as a loathsome, heartless senator, and Sasha Roiz as his murderous henchman. The desire to see these two creeps get their comeuppance is intense, always the sign of a well-done villain.
Alongside all of this roiling drama, Vesuvius serves as little more than a plot device—indeed, the movie goes so far as to hint that the eruption may be a gift from the gods to help Milo avenge himself on those who have wronged him! In any case, much like in the disaster movies of the ‘70s, the destruction is amusing to watch. Unlike Titanic, Anderson’s computer-generated depiction of Pompeii’s doom stirs up little genuine dread. Say what you will about the hokey dramatics in Titanic, but Cameron really did generate a frightening sense of how much it would have sucked to be on that freaking boat.
In Anderson’s Pompeii, by contrast, the characters have all the time, stamina and leisure they need to engage in swordfights, exchange taunts, settle old scores, all with flaming pumice raining down around them. At one point Milo remarks to Cassia “We have to get to the harbor.” You think? Nothing gets past these Celtic boys.