Consider Pompeii Paul W.S. Anderson’s Titanic.
While given a sword and sandals makeover, the basic romantic dynamics here bear an uncanny resemblance to those found in James Cameron’s blockbuster. Instead of a sensitive soul in steerage yearning for an upper-class ingenue, we have a brooding slave in a Roman Empire dungeon who’s smitten with a noblewoman. Complicating matters is the fact her hand in marriage has already been promised to an entitled cad (in this case, a prissy Roman senator). And, of course, there’s the dramatic irony offered by even a passing knowledge of history, lending their star-crossed attraction a doomed air.
Having demonstrated little aptitude for swashbuckling adventure and its requisite quipping in 2011’s The Three Musketeers (his last directorial effort outside of the Resident Evil franchise), Anderson keeps things rugged and po-faced here. Without any mouthy wildlings around to mock him, Kit Harington (Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow) is given free reign to get his sulk on as Milo. Seeing as the Celtic horseman survived his family’s slaughter only to be enslaved and forced into gladiatorial combat, he certainly has cause for glumness. His only consolation is that bloodletting comes quite naturally to him, with his combat prowess soon earning him a call-up to the majors. Alas, the fact his one-way ticket to Pompeii is dated 79AD suggests that maybe luck just isn’t his thing.
With Mount Vesuvius percolating in the background, noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning) discovers that she’s hot for horse whisperer. However, as evidenced in Sucker Punch and Sleeping Beauty, Browning seems to be a bit of a perv-magnet. In this case, she’s the object of creepy desire for Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, playing the role as if it were an in-joke only he gets). While the skeevy senator convinces Cassia’s father (Jared Harris) to throw her into a real estate development deal (unsurprisingly, a script partially credited to the writers of Batman Forever isn’t without its WTF details), Milo butts heads and crosses swords with the hardened likes of Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
As Vesuvius seems in no great hurry to let fly with the lava, the film’s middle act moves at the pace of tectonic plates, testing the audience’s patience when it comes to both PG-13 swordplay and dull-witted scheming. On the former front, Anderson continues to prove himself one of Hollywood’s better choreographers of violence. Milo is presented as a finely calibrated weapon, efficiently dispatching opponents through movements almost as balletic as they are brutal. As he brings a fluidity to his set pieces that eludes many of his contemporaries, it’s easy to see why Anderson has been embraced by a segment of cinephiles and heralded as one of the poster boys for vulgar auterism (a movement aimed at celebrating the cinematic accomplishments of marginalized directors who toil in genre pictures).
As one of the few filmmakers consistently shooting in 3D, Anderson approaches the format as if it were the norm rather than a novelty. As a result, there’s sense of a director focussed on execution rather than experimentation. While the movie’s dialogue is tin-eared and performances are all over the map, the visuals are consistently well-crafted and occasionally indelible. An early scene featuring corpses and swords dangling from a tree as if they were macabre wind chimes will likely stand out as one of 2014’s great images. And once the volcano erupts, Anderson details the ensuing mayhem meticulously, ratcheting up the outrageous action until it seems only natural that a tidal wave should send a galleon sailing through Pompeii’s flooded streets.
Given that he’s frequently a punching bag for critics, making an outright “disaster film” is tantamount to closing his eyes and inviting them to take their best shot. However, there are few other action filmmakers who can bring such enthusiasm to wanton destruction, racking up a massive body count and yet ensuring that the carnage goes down as smoothly as an overly buttered piece of popcorn. Unlike The Three Musketeers, Pompeii suggests that there may very well be life after the interminable zombie apocalypse for Anderson.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Julian Fellowes, Michael Robert Johnson
Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss
Release Date: Feb. 21, 2014