Review: Pompeii / Cert: 12 / Director: Paul W.S. Anderson / Screenplay: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Julian Fellowes, Michael Robert Johnson / Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Sasha Roiz / Release date: May 2nd
January and February typically act as a dumping ground for the major US studios' unloved outputs. The Lego Movie managed to buck the trend this year but usually cinematic turkeys such as I, Frankenstein or A Good Day to Die Hard are rushed out under cover of winter darkness to indifferent audiences while the punters patiently await the summer blockbusters. None of which bodes well for Pompeii. That sinking feeling only grows when the dreaded words "A film by Paul W.S. Anderson" appear on screen, but despite initial appearances, this is no rehash of the Resident Evil films with volcanic lava standing in for waves of zombies. For a start Milla Jovovich is nowhere to be seen, the film instead focusing on Kit Harington's Milo, essentially Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, missing his big fur coat and with his stunning abs on prominent display. Orphaned by evil Romans, Milo has grown up as a slave and a gladiator, proving his mettle in the dank province of Britannia before being shipped off to greater glory in Pompeii.
Once he arrives, the film turns into an enjoyable mash-up of Gladiator and Titanic, as it takes the arena combat from Ridley Scott's epic (lifting the siege of Carthage arena sequence almost verbatim) and the star-crossed lovers, an imminent disaster and a scheming, moustache-twirling villain from James Cameron's watery romance, as Milo must deal with the other gladiators, abusive handlers, scheming parents and a delightfully hammy Kiefer Sutherland in his quest to survive the coming storm, and hopefully romance Emily Browning's Cassia in the process.
The film spends a surprising amount of its time setting up the players and the world of Pompeii before springing the inevitable cameo from our old friend pyrocastic flows in a small but essential role, and the film is all the better for it. The effects are well done with the Roman times well realized and some political shenanigans thrown in to reflect the coming fall of the Roman empire. Moss and Harris are adequate as Cassia's parents and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje fits the Djimon Hounsou role from Gladiator like a glove. As for the rest of the cast, all the Romans appear to be graduates from the James Mason school of Roman acting, all clipped English accents and over-pronunciation. Kiefer Sutherland takes this one step further by seemingly adding pebbles to his mouth for a cartoonish, lispy performance as Senator Corvus; war criminal, scheming would-be husband to Cassia and chewer of scenery. Sutherland's over the top performance borders on comical but is so completely different to the scowly, rasping characters he's been playing since Jack Bauer that he is a joy to watch and thankfully he doesn't manage to completely destabilize the film.
Once Vesuvius does pipe up, it's a race against time to reunite the separated characters and escape Corvus and the city before it's too late through numerous actions scenes and false escapes. The inclusion of a mini-tsunami does come off a little crass after all the terrifying footage from the Japanese tsunami of 2011 that was seen around the world, but apparently it has some basis in fact.
Anderson directs competently and clearly, with action scenes where the audience can actually see what is going on and his camera drinking in the devastation wrought by the volcano, without making it too flashy. He is ably assisted by Clinton Shorter's score, which never quite scales the heights of Hans Zimmer's Gladiator soundtrack but does manage to elicit the appropriate emotions without coming across as cloying.
All this, along with a very surprising ending, hopefully marks an increased maturity and the start of a new chapter for Anderson as a director. He's managed to create an enjoyable historical disaster movie, rather than a disastrous one.
Expected Rating: 5 out of 10