Pompeii" is half sword-and-sandal epic, half disaster movie and all guilty pleasure. Director Paul W.S. Anderson, taking a break from cranking out "Resident Evil" movies, has a strong command of CGI technology and 3-D effects, and the movie is so grand in scale that you can't help surrender to the spectacle, even if the stuff that's going on with the people in the film is often close to risible.
In his first starring role since becoming famous as Jon Snow on "Game of Thrones," Kit Harington proves he's much better as an ensemble player than as a leading man. As Milo, a slave-turned-gladiator who saw his family butchered before his eyes when he was young, Harington is supposed to brood and smolder and emanate inner turmoil, but he comes across as a really quiet dude who's good with a sword.
The first half of the movie is strongly reminiscent of Russell Crowe's "Gladiator," as Milo and fellow slave-turned-fighter Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) grow from mortal enemies into unlikely allies, plotting to take down the sneering Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, in a so-bad-it's-good performance). Milo also makes cow eyes from the arena floor at the beautiful Cassia (Emily Browning), who shares his attraction but has already been promised by her parents to marry Corvus.
"Pompeii" delves just enough into history to give you a sense of how politics worked in the era (Jared Harris plays a Pompeii entrepreneur who has great plans for the city), and the battle scenes are well-staged and exciting, if noticeably bloodless (the PG-13 rating must be observed). Then that pesky Mount Vesuvius starts belching, a tsunami plows into the region and an earthquake splits the ground, all at the same time (talk about worst day ever).
From here, "Pompeii" becomes a Roland Emmerich picture, perhaps a little more refined in sensibility and ambition but still silly enough to have characters running toward flowing lava. The dialogue is often pleasantly leaden ("I've never seen you look at any man the way you looked at that slave!" one of Cassia's friends says), but the sound effects are way cool, and the 3-D is spectacular, with glowing ashes that seem to float off the screen and onto your lap.
"Pompeii" is nowhere near good, but it's quick and to the point and, although obviously aimed at teens, just fun enough to keep grown-ups entertained, if not always in the ways the filmmakers intended.
Rating: PG-13 (Vulgar language, violence, depictions of mass destruction)
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
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For more than a century, Pompeii has entranced filmmakers. Here are some of the releases:
"Last Days of Pompeii" (1913): Taking its title, as do all similarly named films, from the 1834 novel by the now largely derided Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("it was a dark and stormy night ..."), this black-and-white Italian silent was directed by cinema pioneer Mario Caserini.
"The Last Days of Pompeii" (1926): This ambitious three-hour-long Italian production was colorized via the early Pathechrome process, and was also based on the Bulwer-Lytton book, which depicted the decadence of Roman culture and the tension between Rome and the Greeks.
"The Last Days of Pompeii" (1935): An RKO production from directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper ("King Kong"), it boasted Hollywood stars like Preston Foster and Basil Rathbone, but was emphatically not based on Bulwer-Lytton's book. Rather, it conflates the stories of Pompeii and Jesus Christ -- Rathbone, in fact, plays Pontius Pilate.
"Pompeii: The Last Day" (2003): A BBC dramatization of the destruction of Pompeii and the neighboring city of Herculaneum, featuring a plethora of familiar British faces, including that of Tim Pigott-Smith ("The Jewel in the Crown") and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson of "Downton Abbey").
"Sex in the Ancient World: Prostitution in Pompeii" (2009): History channel special examining the thriving sex industry in the excavated city, preserved in ash and dust. How did they know? We really can't say.