Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Kit Harington try not to die in "Pompeii." Credit: Caitlin Cronenberg
'Pompeii' Director: Paul W.S. Anderson Stars: Kit Harington, Emily Browning Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
You may not think a filmmaker whose filmography is half video game adaptations would have a serious critical fanbase. But such acclaim has fallen upon junk auteur Paul W.S. Anderson. It's not undeserved. At his best (his three “Resident Evil” entries), he's a clean, visual stylist worthy of study. At his worst (“Alien vs. Predator,” the noisy, clangy “Death Race” remake), he’s a hack, deserving of nothing. Either way, he’s a brand of filmmaker that’s been with us since cinema's start: the workhorse whose craft is loved by the masses (sometimes), but ignored, even mocked, by all but a batch of the cognoscenti.
Indeed, if he had been around in the 1950s, Anderson might have cranked out something like “Pompeii,” a swords-and-sandals throwback with few aspirations than to throw out a few thrilling fight scenes then destroy its titular town-city with an erupting volcano. Releasing in the era, it would have been a low-rent rip-off of the lumbering Roman epics of the period, one that cuts to the chase to give you the goods.
Of course, “Pompeii” is a $100 million behemoth, fitted with 3-D that makes the carnage that much more questionably thrilling. But at heart it's a B-movie. Part “Gladiator,” part “Titanic,” it centers on a Celtic badass with the very non-badass name of Milo (Kit Harington, of “Game of Thrones”). Captured and dragged to the doomed locale, he attracts the illicit stares of Cassia (Emily Browning), who finds his manliness much more hotcha than the preening overtures of a corrupt Senator (Kiefer Sutherland, doing a very good Billy Zane).
Little of this matters, of course, because everyone's going to die. That the filmmakers are as unforgiving and indiscriminate as Mount Vesuvius itself is marginally interesting — marginally. Truth is, "Pompeii" is a passably anonymous gladiator programmer that gets interrupted by a so-so apocalypse. On one level, it's admirable that Anderson takes no joy in the hellish wiping out of decent and hissable alike, in burning up or drowning innocent women and children. He does take glee when various baddies eat it, but that’s to be expected.
On the other level, "Pompeii" needs more vulgarity. The script is too basic, even for Anderson, and the decimation, when it comes, just doesn't give him enough to do visually. The palette gets stained black and gray with smoke and ash, punctuated only by the orange of spat fireballs. But Anderson is someone who excels at screen movement; think the delightful zig-zagging through frames — in 3-D, no less — in "Resident Evil: Afterlife." The running and fleeing and occasional fighting — when they should be trying to reach higher ground — through the murk of an erupting volcano only proves monotonous. You've seen one felled building or ship, you've seen them all.
Predictably, Anderson can't do anything with the star-crossed romance aspect. He has no feel for characters as people — to him, they're just bodies to move about and occasionally kick butt. He needs heroes with personality and swagger, like his wife and frequent star Milla Jovovich. He gets Harington, who is granite rock — good with a sword, okay with a badass bellow, listless at anything else. (There's some decent back-up in fellow fighter Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who snarls like few have ever snarled.) Even shameless junk needs some meat on it. This is bare-boned.