Director: Paul W.S. Anderson; Screenwritiers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson; Starring: Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Keifer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Lucas, Currie Graham, Joe Pingue; Running time: 105 minutes; Certification: 12A
Sword and sandal epics are pretty hard to come by these days, where multiplexes are increasingly ruled by superheroes and terrorist attacks. It’s not entirely clear if audiences are actually in the mood for them, either, as Pompeii perhaps demonstrated by getting slated by critics across the pond. As a direct result, trailers were force-fed to the British public in order that people would go and see it – not necessarily like it, but at least pay for the ticket. As annoying as such a tactic is, it’s actually quite brilliant. By breaking regular cinemagoers to the point of hating a film based on one trailer, it makes them hail the day it finally arrives in cinemas, and ultimately, the expectations are so low by that point that there can’t be any disappointment.
A quick IMDb search will reveal that director Paul W.S. Anderson is a lot more like a Len Wiseman/Michael Bay type than Ridley Scott, even if Pompeii throws everything at the audience, including the kitchen sink, to convince them otherwise. There have been a few Gladiator–wannabes in the decade and a bit since the Oscar winner sliced its way into history; some inevitably better than others. Troy attempted a similar scale and setting but to grown eyes revealed its true mediocrity; King Arthur, while a little more interesting, had similar problems; and even Kingdom Of Heaven saw Scott fail to recapture the same glory that saw him make his best film since Blade Runner. But none come quite as close to desperately wanting to actually be Gladiator as Pompeii. It’s like a younger brother wearing the same clothes.
It all culminates in one scene hilariously ripped off from the Battle Of Carthage sequence in Gladiator, right down our hero, Milo, refusing to join in with the “We who are about to die salute you!” line, and the whole thumb up or down thing as the crowd chants his name. He even hops on a horse at one point and starts riding around the arena as the bad guy questions how the fight was supposed to go. Most of the audience finally failed to contain a giggle at that point. You can hardly blame them.
Several hammy, scenery-chomping performances could have been the killer blow. Kit Harrington, of Game Of Thrones fame, puts in a get-the-job-done, oiled-abbs performance. Emily Browning is equally solid but unspectacular, and Jared Harris is perhaps the most solid of the lot, but none are more ridiculous than Keifer Sutherland’s Jeremy Irons-sounding general who dances around the sets wisping off the most wonderfully bad bad guy lines. To be fair to him, it looks like he’s having a lot of fun, but convincing it is not. Yes, they could have been the killer blow, but instead they serve to remind us that what we’re watching is entertainment, not thought-provoking storytelling – and that’s exactly where the film finds its footing.
As purely popcorn spectacle, it actually sort of works. When the inevitable volcano finally blows up (but politely pauses every so often while people have important conversations) it’s exciting and fun rather than a big CGI hindrance. You mustn’t let the film fool you into approaching it in any other way because you will be disappointed. This is unspectacular yet entertaining fare – like Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, it’s nothing like as horrible as American critics would have you believe. Just remember to leave at least half of your brain at the door.