Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying
and Love Kiefer Sutherland
Despite being a historical city in Italy located under the shadow of an active volcano, it’s remarkably easy to mistake “Pompeii” for Wisconsin. After all, both are major producers of cheese. Pompeii is the kind of campy, period movie in which none of its actors speaks in their natural accent. The British actors sound somewhat American and the American actors all sound vaguely English, except for Kiefer Sutherland, who sounds like Vincent Price. Pompeii is as good as B-grade schlock gets without becoming A-grade schlock. I really do mean all this in a good way.
First, some history. Pompeii was a real Roman city covered over with ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79. Though architects first rediscovered it in 1599, they reburied it, knowing that the government at the time would have destroyed much of the suggestive art that came out of it. Pompeii was lost to history until parts of it were again unearthed in 1748. It’s captured a place in people’s imaginations since then because of its ash layer. Firstly, the ash protected artifacts from moisture and decay, preserving them nearly perfectly. Secondly, voids were found in the layer that engineers realized were left by the citizens who had become trapped in it. Pouring plaster into these voids recreates exactly the poses of an entire city of people when they died. It might be morbid, but it offers an incredibly detailed window into another place and time, as well as a somber remembrance to a city forgotten for more than 1,500 years.
Pompeii the movie involves almost none of this. It centers on a gladiator, Milo the Celt, whose village is annihilated by Roman invaders. Many years later, he’s brought to Pompeii, where he falls in love with the daughter of the city’s governor, Cassia. The two are played by Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) and Emily Browning (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), but the movie’s stolen out from under them by Kiefer Sutherland (24) and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko from Lost). Sutherland, who’s made a career of raising B-projects to A-quality, knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in and creates a campy, smarmy, snarling, scenery-chewing villain whom it is truly a delight to hate. Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays the gladiator Atticus, who’s earmarked to fight Milo for his freedom. He’s charming in a way the self-serious Harrington isn’t. As the two inevitably come to fight side-by-side, rooting for Atticus comes so naturally, it doesn’t seem too much of a chore to root for Milo by association.
A small detail Pompeii gets right that better sword-and-sandal epics like Gladiator forget is showing us the bustling life of the city itself. Early on, Cassia’s carriage is stuck in a traffic jam, so she decides to hoof it the rest of the way home. The colorful street scenes of peddlers and carriages and morning constitutionalists is enthralling. It’s not the dusty, realistic market of Kingdom of Heaven, but this little touch makes the city feel like a Pompeii that exists – maybe not the one from history, but one that would be pretty pleasant to roam around. Unlike some of Paul W. S. Anderson’s other directorial efforts (Resident Evil and Death Race) there’s some thoughtful art direction and costuming happening here. Things do get a little shaky once the volcano erupts. Why worry about outrunning a wall of flame when it’ll wait for you to deliver a cheesy one-liner to your vanquished foe, after all?
Go in expecting camp, and you could be pleased. The action is energetic and involving, the romance is inexplicable yet heaving, and the humor is best when unintentional. If that sounds like too much affectation for your movie dollar, it’s not something I’d argue you have to go see. There are better movies out and Pompeii will be just as eye-rollingly pleasing when it comes to home release. If you like B-movies you can simultaneously cheer for and laugh at, this one’s a keeper. If you don’t like B-movies, Pompeii won’t convince you otherwise. One important note – you won’t lose out seeing it in 2D. There are a lot of things a movie like this could do with 3D – Pompeii just isn’t the one to do it. Pompeii is rated PG-13.