This one’s tricky. I don’t want to give it three stars because I don’t think it’s earned them, but I don’t want to give it two because its action fares nicely and if that interests you I certainly wouldn’t want to steer you away.
Such is the dilemma of "Pompeii".
"Pompeii" is best suited to action fans, pure and simple. Four stars, even. But it ain't no "Titanic", which serves romance fans equally well, and it ain't no "Gladiator", which offers much to drama aficionados (though "Pompeii" tries desperately, to its profound detriment).
Case in point, just look at my synopsis: “A man enslaved as a child grows into one of Pompeii's greatest gladiators, falls in love with the young socialite betrothed to the Roman senator who slaughtered his family, and fights to save her as Vesuvius erupts.”
Hits all those “X + Y + Z = Story” formula components, no? So paint-by-number is it that at several moments I actually heard dialogue from other films: as Kit Harington first emerges onscreen, I heard Emma Stone exclaim, “Seriously?? It’s like you’re Photoshopped,” and as he faces villain Kiefer Sutherland, I heard Mandy Patinkin’s “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”.
Probably not what they were going for.
Exacerbating this building-block style we have the otherwise impressive gladiatorial debate wherein Sutherland presides over the bloody proceedings. Were it original it would be fine, but it descended into such a blatant and sorry knock-off of “Gladiator”’s Battle of Carthage that I started ticking off the elements as they passed. Mysterious hero “The Spaniard” here “The Celt”? Check. The bloodthirsty agenda-pushing Roman? Check. Using the reenactment of a slaughter as the backdrop? Check (not to mention it’s the one wherein said Roman massacred our hero’s village seventeen years prior; how utterly convenient, given the Roman has no doubt done this hundreds of times before and since). The hero with a special advantage ("Anyone in the military?"/ “I was there.”) organizing and directing the group? Check. The Roman wryly chiding the games organizer with a, “Gee, I don’t remember it ending it quite this way…”? Check (and because I was betting in advance it would be there, extra point for me). The mob pressuring the Roman into giving the thumbs-up in order to keep its political support? Check. The accomplished African opponent-turned-brother? Check. I guess they were hoping it was long enough ago that we hadn't seen it, Best Picture Oscar notwithstanding.
Pompeii feels borne of someone’s saying, “Hey, we’re doing a volcanic eruption. Whip up something we can use as filler until it gets going, something that hits all the hot spots that people have liked before. You have two weeks.” The script was written - er, compiled - by four people, and that right there spells trouble.
No, if you require character development, complexity, or originality, give this one a pass. But if you’re into spectacular special effect, then start planning your weekend. You’ll have to sit through some ridiculously derivative goings-on for the first bit, but it'll reward your patience. The 3D is employed to excellent effect and worth the extra jingle, and while "Pompeii" doesn't capture the human experience the way "Titanic" did, it’s still respectful of those who perished.
Action fans, come on ahead. I’ll no doubt join you a second time along the way when it hits DVD just for a second look at that tidal wave.
Story: A man enslaved as a child grows into one of Pompeii's greatest gladiators, falls in love with the young socialite betrothed to the Roman senator who slaughtered his family, and fights to save her as Vesuvius erupts.
Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Houston release date: February 21, 2014
Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings
Screened Feb 19 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX