In recent years, Paul W.S. Anderson has gone from directing bad movies to directing orgiastically bad movies. This would be the man who invaded Japan with an army of telekinetic Milla Jovoviches in Resident Evil: Afterlife. The same man who steampunked The Three Musketeers with “badass” attack blimps. And while no one could say that all of these new entries into the Paul W.S. Anderson oeuvre are worth a damn, I defy any and all of you to claim that their director wasn’t operating from the deepest, primal, and most absolutely immature annals of his imagination.
So why anyone would expect him to stop now, and with a disaster epic set against the Las Vegas of Ancient Rome of all things, is beyond me. Pompeii is unbridled nonsense from start to finish, strung together from leftover bits of other, better movies and lofted into damn near hypnotic crapulence by a filmmaker who appears to have only the vaguest sense that the tragedy that befell the victims of Mt. Vesuvius shouldn’t be openly mocked. So he reserves his campiness for the brash and unrefined air of “bigness” that fills every scene, whether it warrants embiggening or not. (Always not.)
The story begins when a Roman General named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) goes on a diplomatic mission to the Celtic Isles in an apparent effort to make a Conan. He slaughters the family of young boy right in front of him, and that young boy grows up to be Milo (Kit Harington), a badass gladiator with a grudge against Rome. Milo gets imported to Pompeii, where he romances a young noblewoman named Cassia (Emily Browning) by sexily killing her horse, and bromances a fellow gladiator named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) even though they’re scheduled to murder each other in a few days.
This would be all well and good, I think, if Corvus wasn’t in town to make a shady business deal with Cassia’s father Severus (Jared Harris), exchanging lucrative investment opportunities for Cassia’s unwilling hand in marriage. Cassia would rather wind up with the Flawless Rescue Stud, so Corvus rigs the gladiator games and pisses everyone off right before Mt. Vesuvius blows its top and begins pelting Pompeii with lava and Styrofoam rocks.
Either Paul W.S. Anderson is blissfully unaware that he’s cribbing from Gladiator, Conan the Barbarian and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, or he doesn’t think we’ll notice. In either case, he gives Pompeii every gloriously overblown dramatic moment he can devise, indulges in every cliché of the disaster genre except saving the dog (where is the dog, anyway?), and overall just seems to be having a wonderful time transforming one of history’s greatest tragedies into the trashiest of romance novels. Maybe it’s not “too soon” after all.
By the time Kiefer Sutherland chains Emily Browning to his chariot and rides off cackling like an Adam West “Batman” villain into the magma-pummeled ruins, and Kit Harington mounts an impeccably white horse and leaps over lava pits to save her, you should be completely on board with what Pompeii has to offer, or you should have long ago asked for your money back.
At the risk of sacrificing my critical integrity, I am forced to admit that Pompeii is a blast. It’s a decadent piece of cheese that’s going to blow through your organs like a volcanic eruption, but it’s so delicious that the less discerning amongst us – or at least those who are willing to temporarily adjust their standards – won’t care one bit. Pompeii is the right kind of stupid: sincere enough to entertain on purpose half the time, and silly enough to inspire ironic giggles during the other half. I lava’ed this idiotic, idiotic movie.