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Pompeii: Dullness of Vesuvius Proportions

By Nguyen Le · February 23, 2014

Personally, comparing director Paul W.S. Anderson to slot machines is not wrong at all. The reason? You never know if you have a guilty pleasure on your hand (Event Horizon, Death Race) or an outright mess (Resident Evil: Afterlife, AVP). His latest pic, Pompeii, comfortably parks itself into the latter.

As a boy, Milo (Kit Harrington – Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) has to witness his people slaughtered by the corrupt Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland – Jack Bauer of 24). Fast forward to 79 A.D., Milo, grown-up and wearing six-pack abs, is now a gladiator whose skills are impressive enough to redeem a ticket to fight in Pompeii, the beautiful but ill-fated city by the sea. Here, he meets lady Cassia (Emily Browning – Violet Baudelaire in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), who has just returned home after a disappointing year living in Rome. The two hit it off right away despite their social standing. Get busy, Milo, you have some revenge and romance to do. But wait… remember that “ill-fated” bit? Be swift then man since Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that looms over the city, will organize a catastrophic bonfire soon enough.

Let’s start with the two “oh dear(s)” of this movie. The script (from Batman Forever’s Janet Scott and Lee Batchler plus Michael Robert Johnson of Sherlock Holmes) is laughable, from the silly premise down to the stilted dialogue. Now I did check my brain at the door, as I must, but the cheesiness and absurdity are too rampant they practically reach out to me and say hello. Adding more fuel to the fire is the second anger-inducing element of Pompeii – the editing from Michele Conroy (Mama, Silent Hill: Revelations… my I should have known). It’s a bad buffet where I have a mishmash of meaningless cutaways between meaningful ones, out-of-the-blue angles being introduced that upset the choreography or geography, bizarre zoom-ins, ramping and slow-motion which cheapen the whole production. Surely Paul doesn’t mind these, seeing how they are his trademarks, but to let them overwhelm you more and more with every new film you make, I think a self-evaluation is in order.

Less horrible but in no way redeemable is the acting. Kit Harrington is an empty leading man, though his beady eyes suggest otherwise. Emily Browning fares no better, yet what I like about her – emphasis on the right words in a line to convey a particular emotion – makes her presence more welcoming than Kit. Speaking of presence, Kiefer Sutherland looks incredibly out of place here and is incredibly comical as the film’s villain. Here’s a challenge, try to not see him as Jack Bauer with a bad British (?) accent. Even though he’s still a part of the one-dimensional club, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (as gladiator/slave Atticus) is the highlight because, as you’ll be able to see, he has the most screen presence and brings weight into his role despite the given material that is as substantial as a penny (see him as Heavy Duty in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra for a similar performance). Pompeii also features Jared Harris (Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and Carrie-Anne Moss (Julie in Disturbia) as Cassia’s parents, yet to see them in a film of this quality saddens me because they honestly deserve better. If there’s an acting award to give for Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, get up here.

I’m serious about that last sentence. Thanks to visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi (Fight Club, Pacific Rim and other blockbusters), Mount Vesuvius looks imposing both day and night, Pompeii is incredibly gorgeous and detailed, the chaos are convincing and well-realized. I would like to give a round of applause for production designer Paul D. Austerberry (30 Days of Night), the sets don’t only look lavish but also fully cooperative with the CGI. These are on full display with some fine photography from Glen MacPherson (Trick ‘r Treat, The Three Musketeers), especially in large-scale destruction sequences. However, one can only appreciate the work from this trio if the editor and Paul allow it.

Besides some impressive technical wizardry, Pompeii lies in Paul W.S. Anderson’s list of “let it burn” films. A review I’ve read say this will appeal to teenagers but, no, stick to the documentaries for this sword-and-sandal, romance slash disaster popcorn pic is dullness of Vesuvius proportions.