Pompeii: Lava or leave it

by Mark Burger

It’s no surprise how Pompeii ends. Nor, for that matter, are there many surprises along the way before Mount Vesuvius goes boom – taking a chunk of the Roman Empire along with it. This ersatz imitation of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is not without incidental and frequently unintentional pleasures, but in terms of story or history this isn’t the Cliff’s Notes version, it’s the Silly Putty version.

Pompeii is the latest product of director Paul W.S. Anderson, purveyor of such stylized hackwork as the immortal Mortal Kombat (1995) and three – count ‘em – three of the Resident Evil films. (He also wrote and produced the others, is working on the next one, and wed leading lady Milla Jovovich.) It’s pretty much what one would expect given Anderson’s body of work – a spectacle without much story.

Having honed his medieval machismo on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Kit Harrington plays the fearless gladiator Milo, who has the bad luck to arrive in Pompeii mere days before Vesuvius blows. He’s so tough that he takes 15 lashes and is ready to compete the very next day, and he’s also something of a what would later be called a horse whisperer.

There’s a star-crossed romance in the cards, as he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), a pouty princess from the proverbial other side of the arena. She’s also lusted after by Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland, apparently channeling dad Donald in The Hunger Games), a corrupt Roman senator and the very same sadist who slew Milo’s family 17 years before … although Corvis doesn’t appear to have aged or altered his hairstyle since.

Vesuvius boils and bubbles while these silly travails transpire, with Sutherland chewing the scenery as a lion would Christians. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris appear vaguely pained as Cassia’s perplexed parents, while Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has presence to burn – and the pipes to match — as he brings some dignity to the stock role of a fellow gladiator.

At long last, the volcano erupts and the CGI spectacle commences in earnest. To say that style supercedes substance is a major understatement – the film’s dialogue is ridiculously risible — although some of the effects are impressive (in 2-D or 3-D), and there’s a vicarious thrill in watching Pompeii essentially broiled off the face of the Earth. Otherwise, however, Pompeii stacks up as one of the season’s funnier films even though it doesn’t mean to be. No Roman holiday is this.