A proactive reader recently called the Metro Pulse office to chastise the paper’s uppity film-review team for taking too damn long to get to the point, and for “using too many stupid words from the English language” in our reviews. (I believe the stupid English word he was looking for is “verbose.”) I don’t think I’m one of the perceived culprits; as another reader pointed out a while back, my vocabulary is questionable, my tastes are on par with those of the average fifth-grader, and I should only be allowed to review movies that involve giant spiders.
Pompeii doesn’t have any giant spiders, but it was directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, which is more or less the same thing. And in the interest of getting right to the point, here’s what you really need to know: Pompeii is an entertaining chunk of kitschy sword-and-sandal camp, and the volcanic smackdown that takes up the final third of the film is pretty spectacular.
The hour that leads up to it is serviceable, too, provided you can get into the silly spirit of the thing. Think of it as a low-rent Gladiator remake, only with less self-importance and no maggots. The story centers on a hunky warrior (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) whose name we don’t learn until nearly an hour into the movie. (Spoiler alert: it’s Milo.) He’s the last surviving member of a Celtic tribe that really likes horses and has been enslaved by the Romans who killed his family. Thanks to his nearly superhuman ability to communicate with horses, Milo meets and falls for Cassia (Emily Browning), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy builder. He also enters into an enthusiastic bromance with fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who intends to kill him in the amphitheater but promises to do it nicely. All three will eventually butt heads and other body parts with a smarmy Roman senator named Corvus (a fantastically over-the-top Kiefer Sutherland, who chews more of the Pompeii countryside than the volcano).
The lengthy preamble to Pompeii’s volcanic mayhem is a solid piece of B-movie junk in its own right. Anderson, a long-time veteran of the Resident Evil film franchise, isn’t concerned with grit or verisimilitude; he imagines Pompeii as an idyllic land of glistening abs, decadent cocktail parties, and sexy, bed-head hair—a place where people are civilized enough to turn their bleeding parts away from the camera as they’re stabbed, slashed, bitten, whipped, axed, and stabbed some more. The dialogue ranges from clunky to truly embarrassing, and Anderson is as subtle as Mount Vesuvius when it comes to foreshadowing the fates that will eventually befall each character. But the actors are likable enough, and it works if you let it. Just know you’ve got about 60 minutes of crunchy gladiatorial combat, moony stares, and ill-conceived speeches about freedom before the magma hits the fan. And once it does, the wow factor is pretty high. The much-maligned Anderson could teach Roland Emmerich a thing or two about staging a natural disaster; Pompeii works itself into a frenzy of devastation that includes earthquakes, sinkholes, a tsunami, a relentless storm of flaming rock and volcanic ash, and even a few guys who stick around to punch each other to death during the city’s apocalypse. Anderson orchestrates the action surprisingly well, cutting smoothly between scenes of expansive digital cataclysm and shots of extras making hilarious faces as they get knocked in the head with paper-mâché boulders. The director maintains an admirable level of tension throughout the entire hellish sequence; dare I even call it rousing? I’m pretty sure I got roused at least three times during Pompeii’s home stretch, so yes, I do. Much to my surprise, I even found myself caring what happened to some of the characters.
I’m not saying Pompeii is a great film, or that it wouldn’t have been better with a giant spider. Both of those statements are clearly ridiculous. But it’s plucky, weirdly charming, unabashedly campy, and fun, and it’s easily my favorite of the most recent spate of melodramatic toga movies. Seriously, though, there should have been a spider.