Film review: POMPEII, from Built For Speed

Paul W.S. Anderson creates guilty pleasure cinema. Like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay, Anderson concocts ludicrous, trashy, over-the-top films that infuriate critics and delight the multiplex crowds.  His latest film the historical, romantic, action piece Pompeii may be his loopiest effort yet.

When deciding to make a film about the destruction of the city of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, director Anderson apparently figured that the historical events and the tragic deaths of thousands of citizens just weren’t interesting enough. What the story clearly needed were pec-flexing gladiator hijinks and Titanic-style forbidden romance.  Consequently, Anderson takes what could have been a fascinating historical drama and turns into an outrageously silly, cliché-ridden but admittedly energetic disaster film that almost falls into the “so bad it’s good” category.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is really just the back-drop for the sword-swinging antics and romantic manoeuvres of supposed hero Milo (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington).  Milo is the orphaned child of a family of Celtic Horesman who, after a brutal attack on his people by nefarious Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) in occupied Brittany, is enslaved and transported to Rome where he grows into a champion gladiator.  Topping the bill in a deadly tournament in Pompeii’s coliseum, Milo runs into his old nemesis Senator Corvus who presides over the tournament.  Just in case killing Milo’s family wasn’t enough to get Milo riled up, Corvus also lusts after the woman Milo loves, Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii’s ruling family. As romantic tension and bloodlust build, Mt Vesuvius prepares to rain destruction on the city.

Clearly, the film was attempting to parallel tempestuous human drama with the ominous rumblings and ultimate destructiveness of Vesuvius.  Unfortunately, the cornball way in which this mix of geological and human violence is handled, kills any emotional impact or dramatic credibility the film might have had.  Instead, Pompeii becomes a treasure trove of unintentional comic delights from Kiefer Sutherland’s scenery-chomping performance and white Liberace cape, to Harington’s ridiculously sculpted gleaming abs, floppy hair and impromptu displays of horse whispering to the corpulent, grape-gobbling slave owner (Joe Pingue) who seems to have come from a Mel Brooks movie.  Add to that the Plan Nine from Outer Space-like continuity error of a character appearing to die, only to pop up unscathed moments later without explanation.  There’s also some cringe-worthy racial politics in which a black man is required to sacrifice himself for a white man.  Also, Mount Vesuvius is clearly a sentimental old fool as he withholds the fireballs and the deadly ash clouds at strategic moments to let the lovers have a lingering kiss.

Amid the silliness, Kit Harington handles the physicality of the action scenes well even if he looks more like a runway model than a grizzled gladiator.  Despite playing a hackneyed damsel-in-distress role, Emily Browning delivers a surprisingly strong performance as Cassia.  The film’s most memorable performance, though, comes from the imposing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr Eko from Lost and Simon Adebisi from Oz) as Milo’s deadly but honourable gladiator rival Atticus.

As pure spectacle the film is erratic in quality. It offers some vivid CGI recreations of Pompeii and a fairly realistic looking eruption by Vesuvius but too many scenes obviously involve actors standing in front of a green screen.  Also, the bloodless fight scenes are filmed in irritating wobble-cam so it’s virtually impossible to tell what is happening. 

For all its failings Pompeii gallops along at a decent pace and the fact that it sacrifices subtlety, originality and character development for video game-style action will probably encourage rather than deter to its intended teen audience.

Nick’s rating: **1/2

Genre: Historical drama/ action/ adventure/ romance.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Paul W.S. Anderson.

Release date: 20th March 2014

Running time:  105 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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