"No, my dear Cassia. This isn't sport. This is politics."
There is a law among filmgoers that if a film has more than two writers, one should go ahead and begin subtracting half a star from the film's rating for each additional writer. I'm beginning to think that the same process should apply to studio logos. Any more than two, and the film that follows is likely to be a disaster. It's bad enough having too many writers on a project, but when there are multiple production companies involved, the problems multiply tenfold. It should come as no surprise, then, that Pompeii, the latest film from Paul W.S. Anderson (the visionary director behind the Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat franchises) opens with four studio logos, signifying immediate danger on the horizon.
Opening with quotes from the firsthand account of Pliny the Younger, Pompeii wastes no time in setting up its story. A young boy named Milo witnesses a Roman army commanded by General Corvus (Keifer Sutherland) lay waste to his entire village, and murder his parents. Milo survives and grows up to be a fighter in Brittania known as The Celt (Kit Harington). He is brought to Pompeii where he will compete in the games there, in hopes that his talents will attract large crowds, as he is unsurprisingly the best fighter in Brittania. On the road to Pompeii, he crosses paths with a well-to-do young woman named Cassia (Emily Browning) who is returning home to Pompeii from Rome. Her father Severus (Jared Harris) is a wealthy merchant with big plans to turn Pompeii into the jewel of Italy.
Milo arrives at the coliseum and soon meets Atticus (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje), the best fighter in Pompeii. The two become fast friends, mainly because the script needs them to, even though they are to fight one another at the games the next day. Corvus is now a Senator who comes from Rome to meet with Severus, and agrees to help fund a larger coliseum if he would promise his daughter Cassia's hand in marriage. Fate has other plans for Cassia, as she once more crosses paths with Milo, and find their "chemistry" too great to ignore. This infuriates Corvus, who wants to put an end to Milo once and for all by rigging the games in which he is to fight. Oh, and also, Mount Vesuvius looks like it's about to explode.
Pompeii's biggest issue is that it has no identity of its own. It's content to crib from every other doomed romance and disaster story that's ever been told, and it tries to do it all in 100 minutes, which makes matters that much worse. Movie geeks will roll their eyes when they hear a direct quote from the end of Jurassic Park, or are forced to once more endure the eternally stupid line: "I like you. It's a shame I have to kill you." Even those not as well versed in the language of cinema won't help but feel this film trying everything in its power to be Titanic, Gladiator, or Romeo & Juliet, and failing miserably to not only establish its own identity, but also failing to be even a reheated version of a story they've seen at least a dozen times before.
Viewers will also marvel at the stupidity of the event that brings the two doomed lovers together for the first time, an injured horse with whom Milo can communicate, and reunites them, a wild horse with whom Milo can communicate. One might be forgiven for thinking they're watching The Horse Whisperer by about the thirty minute mark. As the film plods along, it begins to feel less like a plot, and more like a checklist of action film cliches they have to tick off the boxes next to: Villain kills hero's parents, check. Girl and hero can't be together because of social status, check. Girl is betrothed to villain, check. Villain becomes an indestructible killing machine that keeps coming back to life, check. Movie can't be over until hero and villain face off with one another hand to hand, check. It's exhausting, and worse still boring.
And as for the matter of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the film couldn't treat it as more of an afterthought if it just eliminated it altogether. Granted the last thirty minutes or so are a race against time to get away from it, even though characters double back towards it multiple times, but it's used as a major selling point in the advertisements. Those showing up for the eruption are going to be bored to tears by the time it happens. The visual effects aren't even that impressive, particularly in an age where every film seems to just have a third act that is nothing but sheer destruction, leaving this film to feel like the also-ran it most certainly is.
On the attractiveness scale, Harington falls firmly between Corey Feldman and Orlando Bloom, and he's more or less their equal in acting prowess. He's just not compelling or interesting to watch, and his character is so dour he's impossible to root for. All of the same can be said for Browning who's also pretty to look at, but just dull. Sutherland chews every bit of scenery in sight, but it's all for naught as his character is such a one-note, mustache twirling villain he might as well have tied Browning to railroad tracks at the end. Akinnuoye-Agbaje gives pretty much the only performance worth mentioning as he manages to acquit himself nicely of such a poorly written character. I thought for sure the writers would buck the trend of just turning him into another "Magical Negro" character, but of course there's a sequence where he doubles back during the eruption to save a girl from being trampled like a spectator at a Who concert.
It would have been an impossible task for any director to make a good film out of this script, but Anderson was hardly the director to turn to in such an instance. There's nothing mildly interesting happening here visually, and it's only dragged down by the overwrought, cliche-ridden dialogue. I am at an absolute loss for words at discovering that Gosford Park and Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes had a hand in this script. My only consolation is knowing that he was either the first writer on it, and the script was drastically re-written, or he was brought in to punch up the dialogue. Either way, his participation is barely excusable.
Pompeii isn't terrible, it's just merely a dumb, forgettable movie. It's unfortunate that so many films fall into this middle ground where it can't be enjoyed ironically, yet it's far too bad to be enjoyed legitimately. At least Winter's Tale was bat-shit crazy, which made its interminable running time the least of its problems. This just feels like a movie no one wanted to make but made it anyway. Commitment one way or another is the key to making films transcend this middle of the road nonsense that audiences are forced to endure in the doldrums of winter, and if people would stop going to see them, they would stop making them. But I guess it's more likely for two lovers from different social standings to survive the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius than it is for that to happen.
GO Rating: 1.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]