The period from January to March is generally considered a terrible time for new releases. Instead of seeing the last dregs of the studios’ relases, most filmgoers take the time to catch up on Oscar nominees or stay away from movie theaters altogether. “Pompeii” is not going to change the stigma about mediocre first quarter releases for anyone, but if you’re in the mood for a visually impressive, if predictable, action movie, you could do a lot worse.
“Pompeii” follows a mysterious, brooding gladiator called “The Celt” (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones”) as he is taken from Brittania to Pompeii shortly before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. While he’s busy learning the gladiatorial system from veteran fighter Atticus (a surprisingly effective Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), he’s also plotting his revenge against the corrupt Senator Corvus (a gleefully sinister Kiefer Sutherland), who killed his family. Corvus comes to Pompeii with plans of his own, which mostly consist of forcing Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a local merchant, to marry him and being really, really evil. All this action comes to a head on the day of the fateful eruption, and that’s when “Pompeii” really takes off. Clouds of ash drift through the air as tidal waves and jettisoned lava wreck the city. The visual effects and some surprising performances make the destruction feel simultaneously real and fantastical.
That said, the action is stunningly predictable. Of course The Celt (his real name is a secret, otherwise I’d tell you how dumb it is) and Cassia fall in love. Of course he and Atticus become friends in the arena. “Pompeii” and director Paul W.S. Anderson are dealing in tropes, but you’ll be surprised how well these tropes are executed. Almost every actor sells his or her part completely, especially Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Sutherland. The former ticks every box on the “Badass BFF” checklist with aplomb, and the latter has the time of his life doing all necessary bad guy things. Browning effectively channels whatever emotion she needs to convey in every scene, an impressive feat considering how much green screen she was undoubtedly acting in front of. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris bring exactly what’s required to their parts as Cassia’s parents. Everyone in the ensemble is having a great time...except Kit Harington. Harington broods and smoulders on “Game of Thrones” like no other, but whereas his character there has a lot of non-verbal processing going on at all times, “The Celt” doesn’t have a single shade of nuance, or even uniqueness. He’s a walking, talking, action-movie stereotype that would be as welcome in any of the interchangeable sci-fi or fantasy adventures of the past few years as he is in “Pompeii.”
I find it hard to blame Harington so much as the screenplay and the direction. “Pompeii” feels as if it were made by a college film student with an unlimited budget whose two favorite movies are “Gladiator” and “Titanic,” and who thought “Boy, combining these two things would make the greatest movie ever, right?” Wrong. What results is almost two separate movies starring the same characters: first, an ineffective and plagiarizing revenge film that feels like an episode of “Spartacus” cut for children’s television, and then, a CG-heavy disaster movie that knows its audience is there to watch stuff blow up. The PG-13 rating in particular really holds the movie back. It seems so preoccupied with showing its characters slitting throats and throwing axes that it mystifies me why there is so little gore in it. The violence is usually stakeless and often boring, especially in comparison to the well-animated and legitimately thrilling disaster sequences.
Despite these complaints, “Pompeii” is a fun adventure. The CG is, for the most part, visually striking, and the 3D is self-aware enough to use the obligatory and cheesy “flaming debris coming at you” effects well. This is not a great time for new movies, but if you’re looking for something fun and entertaining, albeit predictable, check out “Pompeii.” It’s a blast.