I was hesitant with this one. Growing up reading archeology books, things like Pompeii are real for me. I even got to see the original in Italy years ago, which is now a tourist museum, still in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It's a sobering experience, seeing all those people frozen in their final moments...
So when I heard they were making a movie out of the tragedy, I was initially thrilled. Then I saw a trailer. It looked like a mash-up of 300 and Titanic - cornball star-crossed love for the girls and he-manly stabbings for the boys, with the special effects filling in for any actual acting. But I went to see it anyway and I'm pleased to announce it's more a mash-up of Gladiator and Titanic.
|"Winter has come, bitches!"|
Sure, it's got the cornball romance angle and everyone Lords and Ladys each other like a Brit melodrama, but it makes up for it in the violence and death. John Snow plays a Celt - because every pasty white dweeb dreams of being a Celt - whose family was exterminated by the film villain, necessitating he be raised as a gladiator. That's how he gets from rainy Londinium to sunny Pompeii, where he meets the fish-faced patrician girl of his dreams!
Thank god the director put some earthquakes and sword fights in, or I'd have fallen asleep. Speaking of - Paul W.S. Anderson is another reason I was hesitant. He's the man responsible for those awful Alien versus Predator movies but he also did Event Horizon and Pandorum, two of the best sci-fi horror films since the original Alien. Very uneven record...
While Pompeii isn't as timeless as those two, it holds its own better than expected. This is due to two factors - or maybe one and a half. The first is the supporting cast, which includes that official villain I mentioned earlier played by Keifer Sutherland. His faux-anglo accent is the worst of the lot but it's so affected that he sounds like a younger Mister Burns, which is appropriate since every chance he gets he goes for the evil option. In any other film it would be obnoxiously two-dimensional but he's only really here so you can enjoy watching him die.
Next up is the greatest - and most wasted - talent on screen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Most people remember him as that African guy on Lost, because most people are ignorant swine. Agbaje is John Snow's rival gladiator, which naturally means they're allies once Mount Vesuvius blows its top, with the older and more experienced black guy constantly deferring to the younger white guy. It's annoying because Agbaje's character was far more interesting - one fight away from being legally granted his freedom under Roman law, fatalistic and jolly in equal measure, the sort of character that could have carried the whole movie on his own. But here, so subordinated to the pretty white kids that he makes the expected Noble Sacrifice so they can escape - though there is something impressive about standing to greet the pyroclastic flow with half a sword still in your guts.
|So let's use a classy picture.|
And if Agbaje were the star instead of just the ethnic sidekick, then that other little positive of the film could've blossomed. The fatalism he expresses at times, the understanding and even acceptance of his own mortality, is both very Roman and very alien to modern sensibilities. It lurks everywhere throughout the film, from Princess Fish-Lips sacrificing herself to Sutherland's Snidely Whiplash to protect her family and the city from Roman domination to John Snow's constant open defiance of his own masters, all of which is eventually blotted out by unconscious nature. Along with the sun.
It's a surprisingly grim subtext for a swashbuckling popcorn flick. Not enough to really make up for the hokeyness but let's say three stars.