The pride of the Roman Empire is brought to its knees by director Paul W.S. Anderson and a small army of screenwriters in silly disaster flick Pompeii (2014). Kit Harington, of Game of Thrones fame, stars as Milo, the last survivor of a tribe of Celts. As a child, Milo saw his family slaughtered by Roman forces led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, chewing the Italian scenery for all his worth) and his lackey Proculus (Sasha Roiz); Milo now finds himself in Pompeii as a gladiator-slave, where Corvus is negotiating a trade agreement with the city’s patrician, Severus (Mad Men’s Jared Harris). Corvus is also pursuing Severus’ daughter, Cassia (Emily Browning), who is enamoured with Milo after a chance meeting on the road.
Milo also enjoys a blossoming bromance with his scheduled opponent in the arena, the champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). All the while, Vesuvius bubbles and rumbles menacingly in the distance. A work of lower ambition than Pompeii might have arguably been more successful; between the fighting and explosions, there just isn’t room in a 100-minute movie for everything that Anderson and his writers try to cram in. There are too many undeserved relationships and an interesting-yet- undercooked political thread for any one aspect of the film to get the time needed to fully land. As a result, the first half grinds along, clunking and clanking, trying to keep all of its wheels spinning, managing to just about remain watchable. Once Milo and Atticus get into the arena – and Vesuvius erupts – Pompeii finally clicks.
All of the belaboured character relationships come into play against one another, the action flows, and the audience, like the crowds watching in the arena, get to see what they came for: elaborate sword battles. The fights look decently choreographed, with real speed and ferocity. Unfortunately, they’re shot and cut in such a way that they become rather more difficult to follow than would be ideal. The carnage and mayhem unleashed by the eruption is really spectacular. Anderson finds plenty of ways to throw new and unexpected problems at the protagonists, whose game commitment and raw chemistry ought to be enough to win the audience’s sympathies. It’s a B-movie that’s bursting at the seams with too many half-baked ideas to be really great, but Anderson’s Pompeii claims enough small wins along the way to chalk up a victory over all. It’s no champion, but it’s stronger than it might look.