Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content.
Running time: 105 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four
Is it wrong to root for the volcano?
Mount Vesuvius is the most interesting and expressive character of all in “Pompeii,” a mind-numbingly dull and unintentionally hilarious sword-and-sandal epic/disaster flick/romance. (Who says you can’t have it all?) Director Paul W.S. Anderson, he of the “Resident Evil” franchise, takes one part “Gladiator,” one part “Titanic,” one part “The Horse Whisperer” and pieces of various ’70s end-of-the-world dramas, mixes them all up and smothers them with cheese. And lava.
In the middle of all this mayhem, we are supposed to care about the blossoming forbidden romance between hunky slave boy Milo (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones”) and rebellious rich girl Cassia (Emily Browning). Their beauty is matched only by their blandness, and when they stop to look longingly into one another’s eyes to pitch woo as Pompeii burns and collapses all around them, you’re more likely to giggle than swoon. I was also tempted to scream at the screen: “Run! Run you idiots! Quit canoodling and get the hell out of there!” No one would have heard me anyway over the film’s incessant roar.
But first! We get back story. As a child during ancient times, Milo watched as marauding Romans brutally killed his parents and his entire clan of Celtic horsemen. Leading the charge was the evil Corvus, played with scenery-chewing villainy by Kiefer Sutherland. Forced into slavery, Milo transformed himself over the years into a quick and wily fighter, becoming so famous and formidable that he’s known simply as “The Celt.” He also found time to go to the gym, apparently, as well as to the beauty supply store for hair product.
Flash forward to 79 A.D. Milo and Cassia meet cute along a dirt road when the carriage bringing her home to Pompeii crashes, severely injuring one of the horses. Milo, who’d been walking alongside the carriage with his fellow slaves in a chain gang, bends down and puts the horse out of its misery. Naturally, Cassia is instantly smitten.
Their paths cross again at her family’s villa, where she has returned to live with her parents, Pompeian power couple Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), after spending a rocky year in Rome. Cassia’s family is throwing a lavish party as part of an annual festival, with planned entertainment including gladiators beating each other to a bloody pulp and slashing each other to bits. Among them is — you guessed it — our generically sexy hero, who’s scheduled to battle to the death against the reigning champion, Atticus (the intimidating Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But of course, because they’re supposed to kill each other, they become best friends.
(Long before the volcano goes boom, “Pompeii” is extremely violent, with a surprising amount of blood for a PG-13 movie. I’m still not exactly sure why there were kids around 8 years old at the screening I attended.)
Also in town for the festivities is Corvus, who’s now a corrupt Roman senator. This allows Milo to do his version of the you-killed-my-father, prepare-to-die speech from “The Princess Bride” when he sees Corvus again for the first time since he was a child. But Corvus also has his eye on Cassia and insists on dragging her back to Rome to make her his trophy wife.
All the while, the volcano watches and waits and rumbles and grumbles. And when it finally blows, it is a rather impressive spectacle to behold. (Say what you will about Anderson’s movies, but he does use 3-D rather effectively.) Fireballs shoot in every direction, sending the innocent people of Pompeii scurrying for safety. Some of them seem to have a GPS tracking system embedded within them, they hit their targets with such speed and accuracy. And the pandemonium that occurs at the harbor when the fury of the volcano’s force causes massive waves, is admittedly a kind of awesome sight in all its glossy computer-generated glory.
If only the people in peril were as engaging.