Like him or hate him, there's little denying the successes of schlock filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson. Event Horizon is an underrated science-fiction/horror mashup, Mortal Kombat still stands tall as the single best live-action video game adaptation to date, and even his increasingly silly Resident Evil series runs strong at five films and counting. His latest dials it down a few notches from the last Resident Evil and even his bizarre steampunk revision of The Three Musketeers to bring us Pompeii, a B-grade Gladiator-meets-Dante's-Peak wrapped around the plot of Titanic but not nearly as drawn out or melodramatic, and free of any "there was room enough for two" malarkey.
Kit Harington stars in his first top-billed role as the brooding and vengeful, yet sensitive and heroic Milo. Harington possesses a palpable leading presence, even if the film doesn't ask much more of him than to kick some asses and look sensitive for the camera - the former of which plays to his Game of Thrones' experience, while the latter comes naturally to his babyface complexion and refusal to grow a full beard. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, put to much better use here than Thor: The Dark World, brings equal parts bravado and humor to the jovial Atticus, a veteran gladiator one victory away from winning his freedom, as the film reminds us many times; the subplot lends itself to the same ridicule as it would in any buddy-cop film, and Pompeii seems to treat this with a certain winking self-awareness, making Atticus' exit from the film a certifiable fist-pumping "Hell Yeah" moment. Like Harington, Emily Browning is not asked for much more than looking pretty, but Cassia bears a genuine if general kindness and sympathy that make her and Milo a good romantic coupling, and while their relationship develops only over the course of roughly 24 hours, it culminates in one of the film's few honest-to-goodness moving moments.
The easy standout however is Kiefer Sutherland as Corvus, a deliciously slimy Roman senator who rolls out his every line as if wanting to throw all subtlety to the winds and scream his foul intentions to the world. He is never not fun to watch, and while his character is a cardboard cutout, Kiefer gives him edges sharp enough to slice though the Colosseum. Rounding out the cast are Jarred Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss in the serviceable roles of Cassia's well-meaning parents, along with Cloverfield and Evil Dead beauty Jessica Lucas as Cassia's companion Ariadne, providing moral support and some choice cleavage shots. Their presence is welcome, but their every moment on screen is accompanied by an invisible countdown clock marking them as easy volcano fodder.
On the action side of the proceedings, the gladiatorial fights are well-choreographed but too quickly cut, often resort to rapid exchanges of close-ups with wider shots, making them disorienting to watch; this practice thankfully eases during the latter half of the film, wherein the best sequence is a merry chase with Milo on the tail of a fleeing Corvus and their subsequent final boss battle while Pompeii crumbles around them. Any effectiveness of the action is severely undercut, unfortunately by the movie's PG-13 rating where it should have been a red-drenched R, leaving fights full of on-camera slashes and stabs frustrating clean and bloodless.
Though the film presents itself with unnecessarily dead seriousness, and there is little memorable in the dry dialogue - of which the actors make the most they can, especially Kiefer and Adewale - the script does the film no major disservices, save for one event midway that, apart from meaning to develop Milo and Cassia's relationship and their mutual longing for freedom, makes no sense whatsoever, as it needlessly places Milo's life in danger and Cassia in Corvus' debt, enabling him to force his own desires on Cassia's parents.
But what of Mount Vesuvius, you may ask? Whatever one's opinion of Anderson, he can be credited with a fantastic grasp of 3D spectacle, and in the film's final act makes every use of it when the real star of the show becomes the volcano. Though nearly every beat of the mayhem may be predictably plotted, including a fireball taking out a fleeing ship boarded by a minor antagonist, the visuals are completely up to the task as smoking arcs of molten rock comet their way over the city, as flakes of ash blizzard around the actors, and as flying rocks jettison directly at the camera, making a few members of my screening audience dip and swerve in their seats. The effects are only betrayed by a few shots in which the seams of the composite are showing - which unfortunately supplies one character's demise with some unintentional humor - but the destruction is an overall visual delight, with enough visible human casualties to almost make up for the lack of liquid crimson in the fight sequences.
Pompeii may not change anyone's mind about Anderson's work, but it takes fine advantage of his visual talents, and could be called his best non-remake, non-video game adaptation in years. Its script is a blender full of borrowed plots, and its cast populated with broad character templates afforded just enough depth to keep an audience engaged for 100 minutes, thanks largely to Sutherland's energizing mugging, but it hits the notes where it's supposed to as the city is swallowed by fire and ash. And while its depiction of the eruption of Vesuvius is about as scientifically accurate as Roland Emmerich's 2012, it ought in time to carve itself a respectable place in the halls of Disasterpiece Cinema history. And especially if you're not the sort to spend the movie's run time wagging your finger at the screen shouting, "It wouldn't have happened that way!" you ought to have a fine enough time.