Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Pompeii' (2014) directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Throw Gladiator and Titanic into a blender and Pompeii would trickle out of the nozzle. This film from Paul W.S. Anderson (doomed to be forever known as 'the other Paul Anderson') is a largely moronic slice of pure-grade cheese, boasting a paper-thin romance that'd make Mills & Boon blush, antiseptic action sequences and Emmerichesque destructo-porn only faintly spoiled by the knowledge that this particular disaster actually happened.  But it's not all bad!

The volcano disaster movie subgenre has lain dormant for the last 15 years or so, the equally underwhelming 1997 doubleheader of Volcano and Dante's Peak having failed to set box offices ablaze.  Bolted onto the disaster flick template are large portions of Gladiator; a young celt Milo (Kit Harington) who hates the Roman Empire making a name for himself in arena combat and subsequently being transported to the big city to prove himself; and Titanic. Colliding with that is Rose's plight from Titanic in the form of Cassia (Emily Browning) a young rich girl who's sick of the trappings of her class falling head over heels for a sexy bit of Celtic rough.  This forbidden love would struggle to bloom under normal circumstances, let alone when there's burning lava bombs plummeting from the sky and gigantic tidal waves tearing through the city.  But hey, if it worked for James Cameron...

Pompeii ultimately turns out to be a complete load of cheesy bullshit, but that's not necessarily the kiss of death.  Cheesy bullshit, ladled out with the right amount of sincerity and gusto, can be just the ticket if you want a lazy, undemanding, dumb sort of cinema experience.  And fortunately Anderson, with his track record of the Resident Evil franchise and a smattering of enjoyably dopey B-movies like Mortal Kombat and Death Race, is more than in possession of the directorial skills to make this cheesy bullshit the best cheesy bullshit it can be.

Kit Harington ain't no Russell Crowe that's for damn sure.
That's not to say there's not a ton of things wrong with the film.  Most obvious is the utterly leaden romance that's supposedly the core of the film.  Kit Harington and Emily Browning are pretty dull when they're alone on screen, but together they form a black hole of charisma, with never the remotest glimmer of passion between them.  They're not helped by a dog of a script which has some bizarre ideas about how to set up a love story.  The weirdest is their first meeting, where Cassia falls for Milo on the basis that he can break a horse's neck with his bare hands (whatever floats your boat I guess...).  Beyond that the two barely get a chance to interact at all, meaning the romance never feels remotely moving.

The central romance being a stinker could have killed this film stone dead, but fortunately it's more than rescued by two excellent supporting performances from Kiefer Sutherland and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.  Sutherland, playing the villainous Senator Corvus, pulls out his best Jeremy Irons impression and goes to town with a whirlwind of smug smirks and archly raised eyebrows - if Romans had moustaches you can bet this guy would be twirling his.  At times it's like Sutherland is in a scenery chewing contest with the volcano; and honestly, the two come out about equal.

Sutherland nailing it.
Similarly ace is Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus, our hero's gladiator buddy.  Purely by dint of his natural charisma he's massively more compelling than the bland Harington.  Fortunately he gets a decent amount of time on screen, but this would have been a much more successful film with Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the hero.  He's also got far more chemistry with Harington than Emily Browning has, the one glimmer of actual sexiness a scene where the two topless gladiators rub each other's wounds down with wine!  Going full-bore homoerotic would also have the added bonus of making the erupting volcano a big fat throbbing visual metaphor.

The eruption is the 'money shot' of any volcano movie, and, like every member of the subgenre, a moment that's teased in multiple shots of character's looking suspiciously at dust falling from ceilings or plates clanking on a shelf.  When things do geologically kick off it's probably exactly as you imagine - oodles of tiny CG Romans getting squashed by columns, burnt by lava or swept away by raging seas.  Watching this entertaining carnage I felt a little curl of guilt in my belly, after all is it right to vicariously enjoy a simulation of other people's deaths - even if they were 2000 years ago?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus.  He should be the hero!  He's much more fun.
This gives rise to the one smart bit of film-making in Pompeii.  The focus of the big gladiatorial contest is a recreation of the the villain's greatest triumph - the annihilation of the hero's tribe.  As we've experienced this from the POV of our hero early in the film we instinctively find this distasteful, frowning at the amphitheatre audience baying for blood. These braying assholes are us - we're both getting our yuks from watching a bowdlerised, sanitised fictional account of historical misery.  It's moments like these when you suspect that Paul W.S. Anderson might not be quite as dumb as he's often made out to be.

It's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pompeii - enjoyment of it is largely predicated on your tolerance for cheese and by how much enjoyment you get from scenery-chewing camp performances. For me it just about strayed into guilty pleasure; the kind of film best enjoyed curled up under a blanket nursing a severe hangover on a Sunday afternoon, a pot of warm tea and a few packs of chocolate biscuits in front of you.  


Pompeii is on general release 30 April 2014.

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