Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
We're not even halfway through the year and 2014 has already been the stage for some rather unusual cinematic phenomena. One of the most astonishing is the resurgence of the Christian Values film, which has been cropping up almost monthly with titles like Heaven Is For Real, Son of God, and Noah. Not that there's anything wrong with Christian film, it's just we've never seen a slate so inundated with Jesus since the religious epics of the early sound period.
Perhaps even more inexplicable in its sheer abundance is the return of the swords and sandals gladiator flick. Already this year we've gotten The Legend of Hercules, 300: Rise of an Empire, and Pompeii, the subject of this review. And we're currently staring down the barrel of an even more abysmal Hercules, poised to come out in July and starring the rock as the titular warrior.
Why has this genre suddenly gained so much currency with the American public? Well, one look at the box office grosses would suggest that, in fact, it hasn't. 300 fared well enough thanks to its franchise attachments, but Hercules and Pompeii collectively made less in their entire runs than The Lego Movie made in one weekend.
Typically this kind of inundation in a certain niche genre comes about a year after a big success in a similar vein, but there is no evidence to suggest that gladiator movies had any cachet even as far back as 2012. I suppose it's just one of life's many mysteries, for which we will never have a satisfactory explanation. Like the Marie Celeste or Amelia Earhart. Or where the other half of your pair of socks ended up after doing your laundry.
Whatever the reason, we can rest assured that it's a terrible one because, if Pompeii is a reliable indicator, the filmmakers of 2014 don't have anything new to bring to the genre.
Except Jon Snow, that is.
The story is set in A.D. 79 as gladiator-slave Milo (Kit Harington) is brought from his home in the UK to the grand city of Pompeii for the amusement of the locals in the arena. The horseman training he received as a child earns him the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the... Governor? Emperor?
There's two different fancymen who seem to be in charge of the city and she is the daughter of one of them. Pompeii is full of little moments like this that slip through the cracks - I'm not sure the screenwriters bothered themselves with continuity, being too distracted diving into their swimming pools filled with gold coins.
Anyway, they have the strangest Meet Cute in cinematic history when he breaks her horse's neck to put it out of its misery. This apparently revs her engine something fierce, prompting anachronistic gossip with her handmaiden (Jessica Lucas) about how sexy his muscles are. I have it on good authority that the screenplay describes his character as "absolutely ripped," which just goes to show their devotion to being one hundred percent period-accurate.
"I'm, like, totally bummed about this whole volcano thing" - Actual Dialogue from Pompeii
Regardless, Milo is shoved into the slave barracks under the arena and befriends a fellow competitor, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje - Lost's Mr. Eko). While they both struggle with the idea of having to kill each other in the tournament tomorrow night (and, thanks to some severe continuity deficiency, "tomorrow night" is about three nights from now) and Cassia struggles with the unwanted attentions of Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), things start to go wrong in the countryside as some major seismic shifts begin to take place.
Suddenly, during the climactic tournament, all those times the camera panned up to that funny looking mountain outside the city start to make sense as it explodes all over everything. I put that in italics because the shrieking score indicates that this matter is of grave importance despite the fact that our heroes manage to walk through storms of raining fireballs and burning clouds of ash unscathed.
Come on, you can figure out the rest. Volcano does its thing. Milo tries to save Cassia from evil clutches.
Pompeii's tourism department weeps softly in the corner.
In case you hadn't noticed before, the screenplay and the editing are messy as all hell. The prisoners switch rooms in the space of a single cut. The opening title cards intersperse location and action titles (i.e. "Londinium, 62 AD" and "The Battle of IDK Whatever") with the cast credits in the exact same font, confusing even the hardiest of filmgoers.
And the script is full of witty, unique, highly original and inspiring gems like "If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it already" and people standing around giving monologues of grand significance when they should be running from the lava that's pouring out of the sky. My personal favorite moment is when grammatical structure breaks down completely to provide us with this avant-garde masterpiece of a line: "My family were murdered."
His backstory are tragic.
Unfortunately, for all of Pompeii's deficiencies, it's not quite as dumb as I was hoping. If it was a rip-roaring terrible gladiator picture, it could have been a lot of fun sitting around mocking it and making Bastille references. But as it stands, it is perfectly middle-of-the-road popcorn entertainment. It's too dumb to be actively good, but it's not dumb enough to attain "so bad it's good" status, leaving me up a creek without a paddle.
The action is bog-standard with an uncanny predilection for people fighting with two swords at the same time, which isn't as effective as it looks. There's one scene that's cool enough to be entertaining, cool enough that I won't spoil it here, but for the most part the film thuds back and forth between routine sword fights and characters with names just narrowly escaping the crumbling wreckage of the city, something which I call "2012 Syndrome."
The performances are all competent save Kiefer Sutherland, who was saddled with the most unfortunate of accents, rendering his villainy entirely toothless. And why is it that first century Roman officials all speak in clipped British tones? This phenomenon has yet to be explained by science.
The drab color palette (brown on brown on grey, with some brown-red thrown in for good measure) keeps things from getting too exciting and the emotional resonance is just plain absent. The central tragic romance is more Day After Tomorrow than Titanic, no matter how hard it tries to get us to care (by my calculations, approximately 15%).
Despite being a decently entertaining movie to sit through, it's just plain not worth seeing in any respect. Perhaps it might have been in the hands of somebody other than the director of Mortal Kombat, but as it stands, Pompeii crumbles before it has a chance to impress.
TL;DR: Pompeii is the worst kind of failure - a non-abysmal one.
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