I still remember, as an 8-year-old, seeing “The Last Days of Pompeii” and being wowed by the size of star Steve Reeves, a pretty good alligator fight and a terrific lion fight, but even at that age, being disappointed by the hokey, blatantly fake eruption of Mount Vesuvius that looked so promising on the posters.
Now, all these years later, there I was, sitting in the audience, waiting to be disappointed again. Not by the eruption this time, but – with the pedigree of director Paul W.S. Anderson (“Event Horizon,” “Alien Vs. Predator”) facing me – by everything that would come before it. I was not disappointed ... by my prediction.
This is nothing more than a soap opera. In 62 A.D., a bad guy named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) leads a small army into a quaint village and yells, “Kill them all!” But they miss the kid who’s playing dead, and who, 17 years later, has grown up, in slavery, to become the fearless fighter known as the Celt (Kit Harington, who “Game of Thrones” fans know as John Snow). It’s at about this time that some chunky, obviously bored fellow of some importance, while watching a gladiator versus slave trouncing in a provincial Italian arena, utters the film’s first memorable line of dialogue: “You dragged me from a perfectly adequate brothel for this?”
Cut to what’s referred to as the “holiday resort,” Pompeii, where lots of slave-gladiators are being marched, in shackles, to underground cells, where they will wait until they are brought up to the arena to fight in front of the public. But wouldn’t you know it, just as they enter the city limits, the rich young lass Cassia (Emily Browning), returning to town after a year in Rome, gets into a carriage accident, resulting in the Celt, who does some horse whispering on the side, to be temporarily unshackled so he can snap an injured horse’s neck, thereby winning the admiration of Cassia.
Ah, but someone else is also arriving: Corvus, now a Roman senator, in town to discuss investing in a new, improved Pompeii, by wealthy town planner Severus (Jared Harris), who is Cassia’s father. Plot revelation: Corvus isn’t there just to talk money; he met the lovely Cassia in Rome, and has followed her home with plans of ordering her to become his wife. Her message to him goes something along the lines of, “Get lost.”
We go back to the travails of the Celt who, being the new slave in town, is ganged up on by other slaves, is hassled by his guards, and is threatened by veteran slave and champion arena fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – who is about to retire as a slave, or become a free man after his last fight ... or something ... which will be against, natch, the Celt.
Page 2 of 2 - The Celt, of course, will meet up again with Cassia. Corvus, of course, will threaten Cassia’s family if she doesn’t marry him. Atticus, of course, like any major character who is about to “retire,” is doomed.
And then the ground starts shaking, and the camera regularly tilts up from the city to big, black Mount Vesuvius, looming in the background. Because I needed something to do while watching this film, I started making hash marks on my notepad every time the camera did that. It happens 19 times.
But there’s so much else going on! The shaking turns to rumbling, Corvus gets slimier and angrier, the Celt gets to chatting with another horse, the music becomes frantic, the games begin – remember? Atticus is supposed to fight the Celt in the arena. But, watch out, the arena starts falling to pieces, right around the time the big boy in the background finally blows his top, spewing plumes of gray ash and sending giant fireballs whooshing through the skies and onto the citizenry, and then a tidal wave takes out the remains of Pompeii. Um, I don’t recall reading about any tidal waves in the history books, but what the heck!
What we’ve got here is a Roland Emmerich disaster film, but without Roland Emmerich. It’s people by actors with blank expressions, and filled with confusingly staged fights, and plenty of slo-mo, presented in 3-D by filmmakers who have no concept of how to use 3-D. There is, however, a kind of gutsy ending that will catch most viewers off-guard, that actually rendered the audience I saw this with silent. But a few seconds later, all was turned ludicrous by a second “artsy” ending. Good eruption, bad everything else.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
With Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, and a big, white horse