‘Pompeii’ (2013) Movie Review

Pompeii movie review
Kit Harrington and Emily Browning in Pompeii

Photo: TriStar Pictures

Take the plot of Gladiator, set it at the foot of an active volcano, strip away any attempt at character building and you have Pompeii as director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Death Race) delivers upon expectations. There are no surprises here, nor should we expect any from the man that brought us The Three Musketeers. Not only is Pompeii bad, it’s so bad I can’t help but wonder how serious anyone in front of and behind the camera must have taken it.

After raiding every sword and sandal prop closet in Hollywood, Anderson assembled his cast on a green screen and pummeled them with foam rubber rocks, leaving not a trace of artistic integrity amid the rubble. How screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Janet Scott and Lee Batchler can consider this an original script is beyond me. “Set Gladiator aboard the Titanic” must have been the call from above as that’s exactly what you are getting, though clearly that call came with a caveat — “But figure out how to trim the narrative budget as we want to save money for the erupting volcano.”

With all the boxes checked, Pompeii introduces us to Milo (Kit Harrington), referred to as “The Celt”, Milo refuses to give his real name as he’s fallen into slavery and made a gladiator after watching his entire tribe of horseman murdered by the armies of Rome. Hmmmmm, this sounds familiar.

Milo eventually arrives in Pompeii, but not before catching the eye of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a wealthy Pompeii merchant (Jared Harris) who’s striving to make a deal with Rome to rebuild his crumbling city. Their love will have to wait, but their irrational longing for one another will become fodder for every scene from this point forward.

Eventually locked away in preparation for the games to come, Milo meets this film’s version of Djimon Honsou‘s character from Gladiator. Initially introduced as the champion of Pompeii, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is set to gain his freedom with one more victory. Milo tells him not to get his hopes up and despite initial misgivings, the two eventually become friends. I know you didn’t see that coming.

Rome eventually comes to Pompeii, Milo sees the men that slaughtered his people, revenge must be taken, Mount Vesuvius will erupt and I have to assume the death toll in Pompeii has got to be one of (if not the) highest ever recorded in a PG-13 film, and not just because of the eruption, but because of Kiefer Sutherland‘s ridiculous caricature of a Roman senator hellbent on shouting “Kill them all” whenever something gets in his way.

Given the film’s tagline — “No warning. No escape.” — it’s quite obvious how all of this is going to end, at least in terms of the chance of survival for the characters, but what you aren’t prepared for is the final shot before the credits roll. I won’t ruin the “surprise” but let me at least tell you the audience I saw it with was howling with laughter and satirical applause. It makes me wonder just how intentional the tone of every scene really is and how seriously Anderson actually takes the melodrama he’s assembled.

At one point, as the citizens of Pompeii are scrambling for their lives, an extra is running toward the screen only to be struck down by falling debris. His fall is clearly fake, something you’d expect to see in an Andy Samberg film. I laughed as did others around me, but were we supposed to? Are we supposed to laugh at this? Is it supposed to be cheap?

No one can watch the final shot I mentioned earlier and not chuckle, it’s impossibly stupid to the point you have to question the filmmaker’s intention. What of Sutherland’s silly accent and performance? Did he think he was turning in a masterclass interpretation of a Roman senator? Were we supposed to believe the love affair between Milo and Cassia simply because Milo snapped the neck of one of her downed horses on the road leading into Pompeii? Because that’s what happens.

One thing we can be grateful for is Pompeii maintains consistency with one modern Hollywood tradition. After several scenes of characters looking on as the volcano erupts, by the film’s end Milo looks into Cassia’s eyes and says, “Don’t look. [beat] Look at me. [beat] Only me.” Is it possible their lover’s embrace is strong enough to withstand more than 2,000-degrees of molten rock? You’ll have to buy a ticket to find out.


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