Paul W.S. Anderson must have had “Titanic” playing on a loop for his cast and crew during the making of “Pompeii,” because the director’s sword-and-sandals/disaster movie borrows heavily from the James Cameron drama. That’s not to say that “Titanic” was a wholly original story, but you’d think that Anderson could have done a better job of not making its influence so blatantly obvious. Of course, everything about “Pompeii” feels half-assed – from its bland romance, to its terrible dialogue, to the worthless addition of 3D – and though it’s slightly better than last month’s “The Legend of Hercules,” the film is still a pretty miserable viewing experience.
The movie opens in the year 62 A.D. as a young boy witnesses the murder of his entire Celtic tribe, including his mother and father, and is promptly sold into slavery. 17 years later, the now grown-up Milo (Kit Harrington) is fighting in Britannia as a gladiator known only as The Celt when his skills in the arena impresses a Roman lanista and he’s shipped off to the Italian city of Pompeii. Along the way, Milo catches the eye of a wealthy merchant’s daughter named Cassia (Emily Browning), who’s betrothed to the smarmy Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), the very man responsible for slaughtering his people. (Extraordinarily, neither Corvus nor his right-hand man have seemingly aged a single day, making identifying them that much easier.) Forced to fight in the upcoming games alongside fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Milo is given a chance to exact his revenge when Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupts, causing mass panic throughout Pompeii as the city crumbles.
Despite starring in one of the most popular shows on television, Harrington hasn’t enjoyed much success on the big screen, and that bad luck continues with “Pompeii,” although through no fault of his own. The “Game of Thrones” actor is perfectly suited for the part of the brooding gladiator, but he’s not given enough to say or do to make the character even remotely interesting. Akinnuoye-Agbaje (who might as well be playing Pedro Cerrano from the “Major League” films) provides some much needed charisma to the otherwise dour proceedings, and surprisingly enough, it’s Milo’s brotherly bond with Atticus (and not the romance between him and Cassia) that is the better developed of the two relationships. The rest of the cast is forgettable, though Sutherland deserves special mention for his incredibly campy turn as the lead villain, chewing scenery with such frivolousness that it would make even Billy Zane blush.
“Pompeii” isn’t just “Titanic” with lava, but a generic hodgepodge of sword-and-sandals movies as well. Anderson was no doubt hoping to appeal to both sexes by including a love story for the ladies and some action for the men, but neither one really delivers on its promise. The relationship between Milo and Cassia is never afforded the time to make their romance seem even remotely plausible (you’re merely supposed to accept it, no questions asked), while a majority of the action – save for one great sequence where Milo and Atticus battle a small army inside the arena – is dull and uninspired.
The final act in particular should have been more fun, but instead, it’s a chore to sit through as a never-ending chain of CG explosions is vomited across the screen. You can barely tell what’s going on amid all the death and destruction, not to mention the sheer absurdity of watching two men fight over a girl as giant fireballs rain down on them. Roland Emmerich may be criticized for his schlocky disaster movies, but at least he makes a spectacle out of it. That’s something that “Pompeii” is desperately missing, because for a film about gladiators and an active volcano, it’s about as exciting as a grade school science fair project. Warning: vinegar and baking soda not included.