POMPEII doesnt break a sweat until Vesuvius erupts. This is odd because so much of the story involves the sort of nasty, brutish hand to hand combat prevalent during the early Roman Empire. Perhaps the story seems static and stale because it is a rehash of so many, many other flicks, including but not limited to GLADIATOR, SPARTACUS (big and little screen) and Oz (the HBO series, not the land of the Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City). Now, when depicting an historical event, we much expect to know going in how some things are going to play out. In this case, that the volcano will erupt and devastate the eponymous city. The screaming lack of originality in what leads up to it is doubly irksome in such a case. As is the penchant for coincidence that eventually becomes a parody of itself.
On the plus side, there is a perfunctory attempt at relevance in the way the film depicts the Romans as the imperialist brutes that they were. This, too, is not original, alas. It is fairly accurate, though as it sets events in motion. That would be the way a Roman general (Kiefer Sutherland), wipes the inhabitants of a British village off the face of the earth with a slightly bored order to his troops to kill them all. One child survives only to grow up into a gladiator known as The Celt (Kit Harrington) with dead eyes and killer abs. In one of the films many missteps, we see those abs in the first introduction of The Celt at a backwater arena in Londinium. Though The Celt will fight many battles in and out of Pompeiis arena, whither he is sent after impressing a shrewd trader, we never again see those abs. One cant help but feel sorry for all the work Harrington obviously put into developing such chiseled perfection only to have to spend 99 percent of his screen time with them unseen. One also feels sorry for we in the audience who are also deprived of one of the very good things about POMPEII.
But I digress.
The Celt arrives in Pompeii practically on the eve of the eruption. En route, he makes the acquaintance of Cassia (Emily Browning), a rich girl returning in disgust after a year in Rome to the loving embrace of her parents (Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss). They are hoping to make even more money by sprucing up the city with the investment help of Senator Corvus, also newly arrived in Pompeii. He just happens to be the same Roman who decimated The Celts village all those years ago. He also just happens to be smitten with Cassia. Cassia, of course, loathes him as she loathes all things Roman, and even if she didnt, her close encounter with The Celt on the road to Pompeii has left her a little smitten herself. At least thats what the plot requires, though Browning, like Harrington, fails to emote much during the course of the film. Its almost as though they are in a contest to see which of them can be the more blasé. Its a tie.
Further coincidences ensue, including an invitation of sorts to Cassias house that results in her and The Celt taking a dramatic but ridiculous midnight ride into the hills. Meanwhile Vesuvius bubbles ominously, lakes gurgle in unwholesome ways, and the ground opens up to swallow a house slave with the ironic name of Felix.
Sutherland is the best thing in the film, with his sad eyes and ruthless attitude. He is stuck with clichéd lines, the which he delivers in that glorious, rumbly voice that adds gravitas where it didnt previously exist. He also wears the ornate Roman armor with conviction. The rest of the cast is a collection of stereotypes, from the loyal slave/ best friend (Jessica Lucas), to The Celts gladiatorial rival (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is essentially a retread of the Djimon Honsou character in GLADIATOR by way of the Woody Strode character in Stanley Kubricks version of SPARTACUS.
By the time the volcano finally erupts in its full fury, it is pretty spectacular, with great flaming gobs of whatever lobbing themselves into the city like the carpet bombing of Dresden in WWII. The tidal wave that brings a trireme (or maybe it was a bireme) down a city street was also nicely done, undercut, sadly, by the traditional small child falling underfoot in the stampede to get away and then requiring rescue by one of the heroes of the piece. The best part of this portion of POMPEII is that we know the city is about to be destroyed, and soon this middling bit of filmmaking will be put out of its misery. And so will we.
For all this, the most disturbing thing about POMPEII is finding Julian Fellowes listed in the writing credits. GOSFORD PARK and Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes. There are several other names listed in the writing credits, and one can only imagine what the process was that resulted in the mess of a script that was finally filmed. And one can only hope that one day Mr. Fellowes will be permitted to do for a doomed ancient Italian city what he has done for the doings in grand old English country houses.