Pompeii

Posted: May 10, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

In 62AD, in the north of Britannia, a tribe of Celts are wiped out by Roman legionaries led by Corvus (Sutherland). There is one survivor, a young boy named Milo. Despite escaping the slaughter he is soon captured and sold into slavery. Fast-forward to 79AD and Milo (Harington) is now a gladiator, going under the somewhat more macho name of ‘The Celt’. After impressing a visiting slave owner, Milo is sent to fight in the arena at Pompeii. En route he encounters Cassia (Browning) who he impresses with his way with horses.

Unfortunately for Milo, Cassia is the daughter of the ruler of Pompeii Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), so there’s clearly no prospect of romance, despite the fact that they’re clearly taken with one another.

Once in Pompeii Milo is slated to fight a veteran gladiator named Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) a champion who is only one victory away from earning his freedom. Everyone expects Milo to lose this fight, and his life.

As if things weren’t bad enough for Milo, Corvus has arrived in town, eager to wangle Cassia’s hand in marriage, whether she wants to give it or not, oh and the nearby volcano keeps making grumbling noises…but it’s probably nothing…

There’s a serious, heart-breaking film waiting to be made about the tragedy of Pompeii…I think the first thing that needs to be said is that Pompeii isn’t it. Some films are bad, some films are so bad they’re good, and some films flit between the two. Pompeii is one of them.

If you see Pompeii you might get the feeling that you’ve seen it before, or at least bits of it; Gladiator, Spartacus, Titanic and probably a whole host of other films. Original this is not. It’s also quite dull for the first third or so as Milo and Cassia make eyes at one another and everyone swans around in a togas trying to be as British…sorry as Roman as possible (with some notable exceptions.)

But then a funny thing happens, against your better judgement you find the film perking up a bit, there are some great action set pieces and some humour…and that’s before the volcano even erupts.

Oops spoilers!

Game of Throne’s Hartington probably didn’t have to put that much effort into preparing for this character (aside from, apparently, having to learn an entirely new sword fighting technique) as in many ways Milo is very much like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, handsome, moody, monosyllabic, and pretty handy in a fight. He’s not exactly the greatest actor in the world, but he actually does all of the above quite well, and in particular once he and Atticus form a bond they make quite an enjoyable double act. Even though Akinnuoye-Agbaje is really just playing a variation on Milo he imbues the character with such a sense of honour and nobility that it’s hard not to root for him, especially against those nasty Romans (and of course the volcano, which might be nasty, we’re never formally introduced.) But we’ll come back to the Romans.

Browning does try to make Cassia more than a screaming heroine to be rescued, and at times succeeds, but she does come across a little limp and doe eyed a lot of the time and though they do have chemistry, the attraction between her and Milo does seem to come down to the fact that they’re both pretty, oh and he’s good with horses…

Which brings us to the villain of the piece (other than the bloody great volcano) Corvus. Sutherland looks like he probably had a ball playing this part, not only affecting a British accent but a camp, sneering British accent into the bargain. At least he tries to blend in though, which is more than can be said for Carrie Ann Moss. For while everyone else is doing their best Laurence Olivier impression, she’s just, well, American.

Harris is solid, and it is interesting during his scenes with Sutherland to imagine their respective dads facing off against one another in another time and another film.

Once the action moves to the arena we get some superbly executed fight scenes, and it’s very hard not to get excited as Milo and Atticus face off against a whole host of Roman soldiers. Before you can say “Are you sure the mountain should be doing that?” however, Vesuvius decides enough is enough, and all hell is quite literally let loose.

The destruction of Pompeii is pretty epic, although with flaming boulders streaking down from the sky a volcanic eruption doesn’t look too dissimilar from an orbital bombardment, so for all we know (care) there might actually be a Star Destroyer in orbit…

This is a film that does what it says on the tin, and little more. The heroes and the villains are easy to spot, swords are swung, pretty people kiss one another and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes as if they plan to be together forever (despite having known each other five minutes) the bad guys sneer and cheat, the good guys are noble and brave, and once the volcano erupts everyone is a potential victim.

Taken on its own terms Pompeii ends up being enjoyable, but only once you place your tongue firmly in your cheek given the fact that a lot of the dialogue is pretty risible. Visually Anderson is a good director (though he’s still to beat his debut, the wonderful Event Horizon), but this is a film that reminds you just why Titanic is so good; because despite its occasionally clunky dialogue, its broad brush strokes and star crossed lovers, Cameron made us care, not only about Jack and Rose, but about everyone else on board the ship, so when people started to die it affected us. Sadly many of the volcano related deaths in Pompeii are more funny than tragic, with too many people dying in ludicrous slow motion, or getting time to mutter farewell speeches before they bite the, er, lava.

If this film was fighting in the arena it wouldn’t quite deserve a thumbs up, but doesn’t quite deserve a thumbs down either, so I guess what I’m saying, in an incredibly convoluted manner, is that it’s a bit average. Plus points for the ending though.

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