Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: Pompeii (2014)

Pompeii (2014)

As I watched the second half of Pompeii unfold, I was wondering the same thing that I had been asking myself while watching the last thirty minutes of Battleship: now why couldn't the rest of this movie be this good? Now, the second half of Pompeii isn't great cinema, or even a great disaster flick, but what it was was damn entertaining. It was a movie fully aware of its own cheesiness and schmaltz, and cutting absolutely loose with it. It was what I had paid $6.50 to see: the famed destruction of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii by the most famous volcano on the planet.

And thank Jupiter and Juno that I only had to pay $6.50 for my matinee ticket, because before I got to the good stuff, I had to sit through an hour of one of the worst sword-and-sandal flicks I'd ever seen. Dull acting, a hackneyed storyline, and absolutely dreadful fight scenes marred this film almost irrevocably, and it was only the second half and a gloriously hammy turn by Kiefer Sutherland as the villain that stopped me from writing this film off entirely. Pompeii is only for the most hardcore connoisseurs of disaster flicks, and even then, you'd be wise to wait for Redbox or, better yet, for some enterprising individual to upload the good parts to YouTube.

The story is as follows: Gladiator meets Titanic. That's pretty much it.

Alright, if you want a bit more detail: a Celt named Milo (played by Game of Thrones' Kit Harington), having witnessed the Romans wipe out his tribe when he was young, is now a gladiator, brought to Pompeii after kicking ass and making a name for himself in Britannia. Lady Cassia (Emily Browning), a disaffected upper-class youth, becomes enamored of Milo after he mercy-kills a crippled horse, much to the consternation of Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a Roman senator and hopeful suitor for Cassia -- who, coincidentally, also led the attack that wiped out Milo's tribe. So yeah, Milo is Leonardo DiCaprio, Cassia is Kate Winslet, Corvus is Billy Zane, and Vesuvius is the iceberg.

And that's really all there is to say about the story. Outside of a slight change to the ending that brought a smile to my face, this film really is Titanic cut-and-pasted into ancient Rome, and it's not a particularly good ripoff, either. Harington is phenomenally wooden as the protagonist, and while Browning is slightly better (looking merely bored), she and Harington have zero of the sort of chemistry that made Titanic into a classic romance. Milo and Cassia's romance never comes off as believable, the two seeming to fall in love almost immediately after their meet-cute at the beginning. But as bad as the romantic story is, they still don't match the fight scenes in sheer ineptitude. As I watched each incoherent gladiator fight one after the other, I wondered to myself just how the hell Paul W. S. Anderson has still been finding work as an action filmmaker for well over a decade now. When it comes to individual fight scenes, Anderson is easily one of the worst in the business, and this film is the greatest showcase of his failings as a director. The fights lack even the bloodshed that made his Resident Evil films bearable, instead being lightweight PG-13 action -- not like it matters in the face of it being impossible to tell just what the hell is going on 90% of the time. Having just gotten back from 300: Rise of an Empire last night, it is inexcusable that the fight scenes in a movie about Roman gladiators should look so terrible.

So why am I not completely dismissing this film as pure garbage? Well, for two reasons. First, we have the supporting cast. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus was a far more interesting character than Milo, a lifelong gladiator who only has to win one more fight to be freed, not listening to Milo's warnings that Rome won't let any slave beat their system. The fact that he so outshined Harington makes it that much more shameful that this film focused on its bland love story instead. It should've been aping the ensemble-cast disaster epics of the '70s as opposed to Titanic. Still, the only actor here who seemed to know exactly what sort of movie he was getting himself into was Kiefer Sutherland as the Roman senator Corvus. I'm not going to lie: Sutherland was awful. His performance was pure ham-and-cheese, devouring the olive-garden scenery the way a family reunion devours Olive Garden. But it was an awesomely bad performance, frequently being by far the most... well, not interesting, but certainly watchable character in this film. He was in the running with Raul Julia in the Street Fighter adaptation as one of the most entertaining hams I've seen in a big Hollywood movie.

Secondly, once the volcano stops merely looming ominously in every shot and starts doing what we paid money to see it do, this movie picks up dramatically. The second half of Pompeii was Dante's Peak transplanted into the classical era, with the gladiator arena crumbling, a tsunami sweeping away Roman galleys, a villa being torn in half by a landslide, people in togas running around dodging a rain of volcanic rocks falling from the sky, and a climatic chariot race between Milo and Corvus through the crumbling city streets. The direction takes such a step up in quality that I'm still not certain if the two halves of this film were directed by the same man. If they were, then it's clear that Anderson is far superior at directing CGI-filled spectacle as opposed to more grounded fight scenes, answering the question I asked myself about him two paragraphs ago. Like I said, it's not one of the greats, but it does exactly what it set out to do, and that was blow shit up Roman-style.

Score: 2 out of 5

This is an undoubtedly bad movie, but once it gets moving, it has a strangely watchable quality about it that prevents it from being a total waste of time. Still, it's not something I would pay good money to see, its unbearable and overly-long first act being nearly enough to convince me to walk out of the theater.

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