In many ways, the story of Pompeii, the small ancient Roman city that was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, is a disaster film director’s wet dream. In addition to volcanic eruptions, the story involves earthquakes and tidal waves. Mix in a little romance, and you’ve got something. But even uber-director like James Cameron knew he couldn’t make the story of the Titanic sinking into a terrific film without a good story. Director Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil) gives it a good go with Pompeii. But despite some good special effects (the movie looks especially sharp in 3-D), the film, which opens areawide on Friday, settles for too many clichés and comes off as kitschy without intending it.
The story centers on Milo (Kit Harington) and the film commences with a scene in which a ruthless Roman soldier kills his parents. Enslaved as a young boy after his parents' death, he becomes a fierce gladiator; he's virtually invincible. His owner sends him to Pompeii where he’s set to battle the equally fierce Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in some kind of marquee match-up. If Atticus wins, he's been promised his freedom.
On the way to Pompeii, Milo helps Cassia (Emily Browning), the outspoken daughter of a merchant (Jared Harris) who has invited the Roman senator Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland) to the city with the hopes of setting up some business. Cassia quickly falls for Milo, knowing full well that a relationship with a gladiator isn’t realistic. The Romeo and Juliet nature of their romance isn’t the only cliché here.
As a bad guy, Corvis fulfills all the stereotypes. He threatens Cassia's parents if they don't allow her to become his wife. He regularly tells his soldiers to "kill them all" as he orders slaughter after slaughter. In one scene, he appears to have died, only to spring to life and start killing again. But with his strange, indefinable accent, Sutherland comes off more like a buffoon than a threat. Harington doesn't fare much better. He was clearly hired for his looks — he’s so ripped, you could bounce a quarter off his tight stomach. And Browning spends too much time pouting (she’s got the lips for it). Only Akinnuoye-Agbaje shines here. He gives the fierce Atticus real heart and makes him into a truly noble warrior. One saving grace: the film clocks in at a manageable 104 minutes. At least Anderson knew better than to turn his disaster flick into an epic disaster flick.