For years, Paul W.S. Anderson has been dismissed as “that other Paul Anderson.” Fair enough. When you share a name with the best director of your generation and your highest profile works are adaptations of the ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Resident Evil’ videogames, that’s just going to happen. However, recently folks have finally started to notice that this Paul Anderson is actually quite good at what he does. The man is an unapologetic B-movie maker with no aspirations for artistic pretension. His latest effort is ‘Pompeii’, a 3D historical epic that mixes gladiatorial combat with a disaster film payoff. The film works because it knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to be anything else. Sometimes, that’s good enough.
Kit Harington from ‘Game of Thrones’ stars as a slave turned gladiator in the Spartacus/Maximus mode. He’s a brooding pretty boy with lethal fists. While traveling to Pompeii, he catches the eye of a beautiful young debutante played by Emily Browning whose parents (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss) run the city. Browning returns home after a failed trip to Rome led to little more than outrageous flirting from a Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). Harington is set to be the star attraction of a gladiator show put on for Sutherland’s benefit, and since that moustache-twirling villain noticed that Browning has an eye for the romantic killer, he wants to ensure the boy dies.
The stage is set for a gladiatorial combat flick and Anderson delivers one. As icing on the cake, he stages the entire melodrama under the mouth of a volcano that explodes just in time to extend the climax into a disaster movie. It’s all big and dumb (how could it not be when Kiefer plays a period villain with no attempt to adjust his performance to the setting?), but it’s also colorful, well produced and paced like a bullet. As long as you’re capable of turning your brain off for 90 minutes, it’s pretty well impossible to have a bad time.
Paul W.S. Anderson might not be a filmmaker known for subtlety or complex character development, but he can rip out an action yarn on demand and does exactly that here. The plot never stops moving and the characters are presented with just enough depth to keep the machine pumping. If there’s nothing going on beneath the surface, there doesn’t need to be. This movie is all about glossy sensation, with shirtless bodies smashing against each other until blood is spilled, and then lava falls from the sky to kill off the remaining survivors and bystanders. It all flows by efficiently and even thrillingly with any and all stupid moments getting a pass for the campy laughs they provide.
As is customary these days, the movie is of course presented in 3D. While that’s all been laid on cheaply in post, gladiator action and volcano explosions provide plenty of opportunities for “Gotcha!” jumps. In the end, it’s a gimmicky bit of Hollywood fluff, but at least it’s a good pile of gimmicky fluff provided by a director who specializes in such cheese. ‘Pompeii’ is certainly forgettable, but at least you’ll have a good time before moving on to the forgetting stage.