A friend called, inviting me along to a preview screening of the new movie, Pompeii. I was bemused and more than a little curious. The trailer was interesting and I was quite looking forward to seeing it. But I also knew my friend and his taste in movies, which ran to what were once referred to as art-house.
He has a well-honed disdain for anything resembling commercial Hollywood cinema (a few days before, we’d seen Nebraska together. I’d sat through so many like it in the 1970s when the kite that was the New Hollywood was as high as many of its participants and there were no reasons I could see to revisit those days. True, Bruce Dern, who was never the most engaging of character actors, rating slightly below Warren Oates for his capacity to engender excitement, was excellent even if I was too often reminded of Jack Nicholson the morning after an Oscars after-party. That director Alexander Payne was constantly signalling the movie’s “importance” by a) filming in black-and-white and b) unfolding the narrative at a pace that made the downhill progress of treacle on a winter’s day seem like NASCAR sailed a little too close to emotional manipulation in my book.).
I wondered, then, if my friend hadn’t mixed up his directors.
Pompeii is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose career has a joyfully unashamed popcorn aesthetic. His Resident Evil series, starring his wife, Milla Jovovich, was based on a computer game as was his Mortal Combat (1995), while his other films, as director and, generally, producer and scriptwriter, includes Death Race (2008), AVP: Alien Vs Predator (2004) and an ever-so-slightly steampunk version of The Three Musketeers (2011).
The W.S. (which stands for William Scott) delineates him from another Paul Anderson, that of Paul Thomas Anderson, another hyphenate, with an output definitely more attuned to the mature demographic. This Paul Anderson attracts acclaim like shit to a Shih Tzu, having been responsible for Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012), all of which were garlanded with Academy Award nominations (eight in the case of There Will Be Blood).
I didn’t want to miss this preview or the reaction of my friend. As it turned out, the difference in directors hadn’t occurred to him. Like me, he’d seen the trailer and thought it had potential. I was still along for the ride, though; Pompeii was never going to be anything more than the sum of its parts (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. To me, movies are enjoyable flights of fancy, narrative wonders that temporarily eclipse the disappointments of everyday life. These days, a frozen Coke and a Choc Top far outweighs the appeal of Mahler and the emotional root canal of Death In Venice).
I try not to count the anomalies in popcorn movies (continuity errors are another matter). Too distracting. But there was something I couldn’t ignore. The hero, who goes by the name of Milo (don’t ask), as a small child with more than a passing resemblance to Emil Minty, is the sole survivor of a massacre of his Celtic village by Roman centurions. He is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator.
Much is made in the production notes of Paul W.S. Anderson’s extensive research into his subject material. Which leads us to Milo’s casting; the character’s people are Celtic warriors, the most feared of the barbarian hordes who rampaged across Europe, ruffling the togas of the ancient Greeks and, later, Romans, in the process.
Celts were renowned warriors, generally characterised as tall and muscular, towering over their Mediterranean foes. So in casting the lead role, it appeared Anderson had a certain inclination towards Orlando Bloom (who he’d worked with on The Three Musketeers). Bloom, being otherwise occupied, the casting call went out, which must have attracted every barista, indie musician and underwear model in North America. Kit Harington, who knew his way around a sword from playing Jon Snow on Game Of Thrones, eventually got the gig. That Harington was even smaller than Orlando Bloom didn’t seem to bother anybody.
Anderson’s female lead of choice, Milla was also busy but, in the spirit of feisty waifs, Emily Browning was signed as the love interest, Cassia, the daughter of a Roman nobleman. Already well-known to fanboys for the saucy bits in Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Sucker Punch (2011), Pompeii was well on the way to satisfying its target demographic. At least on paper.
In surveying the result, it’s worth reflecting on why so many actors in swords-and-sandals epics are required to emulate mid-century BBC radio announcers. Kiefer Sutherland, as the arch baddie, Corvus, a Roman senator with more than a touch of the Jack Bauers, except crueller, crash-tackles the accent conundrum with characteristic flair. Variety, in its review of the movie, suggested Sutherland was impersonating Boris Karloff. That’s fair although I also detected Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet, all of them delivering their lines while wearing ill-fitting dentures.
If another of the Roman baddies, played by Joe Pingue, is anything to go by (doing a wicked version of Frank Thring in his Biblical epic days) is anything to go by, there may well have been a competition on set to impart the fruitiest menace.
Competitive acting aside, Pompeii is an enjoyable hyphenate – action-adventure-disaster-movie-romance. The characters and situations may be well-worn but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The art direction and digital effects are good, and the 3D (filmed, not post-production) immersive if a little muddy.
The forbidden love between the Roman noblewoman and barbarian gladiator is contrasted with the volcano as it glowers over the city, bubbling, threatening to break its confines, in cutaways that will have even the most naive of teenage boys simmering along. The explosion of molten heat grows closer by the minute and so too does Mt Vesuvius.
Kit Harington is buff and affects a take-charge demeanour but doesn’t totally convince. Emily Browning is effulgent as ever. Their pairing is not the most electric but there’s an undeniable drama in their quest to escape the city and the engulfing firestorm, which threatens to transform them into ashen Lladro.
Sutherland is the true delight; he chews the scenery in big meaty hunks, spits it out and whips it up into a double-baked cinematic soufflé.
A notable quibble is Pompeii’s curiously muted approach to the violence and eroticism that should be expected from such a storyline; bodily fluids flowed more prominently in the cable Spartacus. Overall, though, Pompeii is enjoyable and, in the right circumstances, worth the price of admission.
Perhaps, as Anderson did with The Three Musketeers, the movie could have benefitted from a bit of steampunk. Or even, as in Resident Evil, zombies. Nothing wrong with injecting a little originality into a bog-standard plot.
As I consoled my friend, who had been hoping more for Bergman or Bertolucci, I noted that while W.S. definitely wasn’t Thomas, there were far worse things he could be. For example, he’s certainly not Uwe Bole, a director with a similar aesthetic who has fashioned something resembling a career from movies based on video games. While W.S. in most cases pleases the fans, even ultra-finicky fanboys, there’s a general consensus that Bole has come closer than anybody in history to achieve alchemy in that he consistently manages to transform celluloid into stinking piles of dog turd.
Pompeii mightn’t be Paul W.S. Anderson’s best movie but, on many levels, it does what it sets out to do. It’s an enjoyable companion for an empty couple of hours, a fizzy drink and some snack food. Sometimes, that’s all someone needs.
Words © David Latta
Photos courtesy Icon Film Distribution