Pompeii struggled in theaters. What's the verdict? I for one, liked it a lot.
In 62 A.D. in Britannia, a tribe of Celtic horsemen are brutally massacred by Roman legions commanded by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). One of the few survivors is a young boy who sees his mother and father cut down in the battle, but he is captured by slavers days later and sold into slavery. Some 17 years later, the boy is now a grown man, Milo (Kit Harington), a gladiator known simply as 'the Celt.' His reputation grows with each brutal fight he wins to the point he's being sent to Italy to fight, leaving the Roman provinces behind him. The Celt is part of a large group of gladiators sent to Pompeii where he will fight as part of an upcoming festival to the gods. Traveling to the city, Milo helps a beautiful young Roman woman, Cassia (Emily Browning), when her carriage is stopped, but they're immediately separated. The new gladiators head into Pompeii, but a nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius is showing signs of a coming eruption. What will happen in the gorgeous Roman vacation city? Will Milo survive the coming fights to find Cassia?
Made for anywhere between $80 and $100 million, this historical epic from director Paul W.S. Anderson received generally negative reviews this winter, making a little under $25 million in the U.S. but doing decent elsewhere, racking up about $97 million in box office. A push if anything overall financially, not a dud, not a huge success. Why the struggles? Well, there's some good and bad. The cast -- while good I thought -- doesn't feature a single huge star. Lots of recognizable faces but not necessarily anyone who's going to pull in the audiences. As well, if you've seen any number of historical epics set in ancient times from Roman to Greek to Britannia, you're going to be more than a tad familiar with the characters, story and sticky situations that develop. Is that a bad thing? That's going to depend on how much you enjoy and appreciate movies like this.
I'm a sucker for certain types of movies; westerns, war, heist and....yes, historical epics. I liked 'Pompeii' a lot. I was entertained from the get-go and loved going along for the ride. It's my go-to move in describing movies like this. It doesn't re-write the genre, doesn't do anything crazy unique or original. What is it then? It is damn entertaining, like a throwback to the heyday of the historical epics. In the vein of more recent film epics like Gladiator and 300 to TV shows like Spartacus and Rome, it is familiar. No doubt about that from the noble gladiators to the slimy, evil Romans. If you're a fan of the similarly themed 1950s/1960s epics, I think you'll enjoy this one. Don't expect anything that will blow you out of the water, but instead, a good, old-fashioned quasi-epic that's fun, entertaining and action-packed from beginning to end.
No stars, no problem here. Almost all the characters are archetypal characters, everything from the gladiator, the veteran gladiator, the evil Roman, the $ for eyes businessman, the sinister gladiator trainer, the beautiful, perfect young woman. You get the gist. A star of HBO's Game of Thrones, Harington is a very solid lead, a man of few words, an anti-hero looking for revenge. Russell Crowe in Gladiator is an obvious influence on the character, especially Milo's rivalry turned friendship with Atticus, a veteran gladiator a fight away from winning his freedom, played by a scene-stealing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Harington obviously gets the love interest too, Browning playing Cassia, the pretty girl who needs to be rescued. It's the love at first sight back story, two lovers just meant to be together with everything else be damned.
Who else to look for? The only real weak spot is Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland as the evil Roman villain, a legion commander turned senator, Corvus. Speaking in some sort of English accent (your guess is as good as mine), it's that over the top, so ridiculously evil bad guy you can't help but laugh. His loyal and equally sinister right-hand man, Proculus, is played by Sasha Roiz. Also look for Jared Harris and Carrie Anne-Moss as Cassia's parents, looking for some civic improvements (silly Romans), Jessica Lucas as Cassia's friend and servant, Joe Pingue as the owner of the gladiator school and Currie Graham as Bellator, the brutal gladiator trainer.
Now for those not so historically-inclined readers, the background for the 'Pompeii' is the horrifically violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. An estimated 16,000 people were killed in the eruption, Vesuvius spewing stones, ash and fumes 21 miles (21 miles!!!) into the air. The eruption is saved for the last 40-minutes and features some impressive special effects work, the CGI blending pretty seamlessly (with a couple horse-riding sequences standing out negatively). It's disaster flick meets historical epic, and the results are solid across the board. There's something horrifying about watching this display of nature's power, knowing this all really happened. It's a very cool extended sequence, all sorts of natural hell unleashed at the people of Pompeii.
Getting there is a lot of fun too, including one epic gladiatorial battle in Pompeii's arena, Milo, Atticus and a few other gladiators doing battle in a reenactment of the battle that claimed Milo's parents and tribe. Another big-time nod to Gladiator? Oh, yes, completely, but it's exciting. I am curious if the movie would have done better in theaters with an R-rating (the violence could and should have been pretty graphic) but as is, it certainly gets the blood and adrenaline flowing. A movie that was a lot of fun. Probably not for everyone, and as mentioned, it doesn't rewrite the genre. Give it a shot though. A whole lot of fun.
Pompeii (2014): ***/****