Paul W.S. Anderson might just be the very avatar of filmmaking mediocrity. Starting with the legendarily bad “Mortal Kombat” adaptation and working his way up a bit from there, he’s made a living off churning out genre films not awful enough to be memorable, but just bad in enough noticeable, glaring ways to make for unpleasant viewing experiences. With his long-running zombie action franchise “Resident Evil” yielding diminishing returns, Anderson now sets his sights on the sword and sandals epic with Pompeii, an ironically undercooked assemblage of shopworn story points that alternates between mind-numbingly boring and obliviously campy.
Beginning with the slaughtering of a Celtic village, the story follows Milo (Kit Harington), a survivor of that village who grows up and is sold into slavery. With a natural knack for combat, he spends his adult years as a pit fighter who is eventually picked up to become a gladiator in the city of Pompeii. Once there, he befriends a fellow combatant, falls in love with the fair princess Cassia (Emily Browning), and (of fucking COURSE) is afforded an opportunity for vengeance once the general, now a senator, who ordered the destruction of his village (Kiefer Sutherland doing his best Jeremy Irons impression) shows up on behalf of The Roman Empire.
It’s clear Pompeii is at least attempting to be some kind of sprawling epic of love, friendship, and revenge, but at a pretty slim running time of 100 minutes (including credits), none of the story threads have any room to breathe with separate subplots often either interrupting one another or converging by way of contrivance. It’s the kind of film that wants to be every kind of movie at once: A romance, a gladiator epic, and a Roland Emmerich-style disaster movie, respectively, but is unwilling to put in the effort to understand what makes these types of stories resonate. The result is a patchwork of thinly-sketched character archetypes and uninvolving internal politics that only really exist to mark time until the big event which renders almost everything that came prior completely pointless.
In fact, it’s the film’s supposed draw that presents its biggest issue. We already know what happened to Pompeii, and the reason we’ve been told we’re here is to witness large-scale volcanic destruction. Within this context, all of the political skullduggery and romance-building amounts to is a tedious waiting game where we’re all but assured that what we’re witnessing will be thrown out the window once the shit hits fan. Anderson and the screenwriters’ obligation to validate their shallow disaster film’s existence with a membrane-thin story also works to the detriment of its pace and structure since the film as a whole plays out like a hoary love story interrupted out of left field by a half hour of CGI destruction porn.
Regardless of the quality of his films, Paul W.S. Anderson has always approached action scenes with a sense of giddy enthusiasm. Whether they be the acrobatic martial arts and gunfights of “Resident Evil” or the balls-out vehicular mayhem of “Death Race,” he has always given the impression that the real reason he’s in the movie business is to thrill. It’s this fact that makes how mundane the set pieces in Pompeii are all the more curious. Burdened with a PG-13 rating, the gladiatorial fights and sword brawls feel weightless due to being kneecapped by editing and camera angles all but dedicated to hiding the smallest drop of blood. Even once Mount Vesuvius blows its stack, the resulting fireballs and carnage serve as little more than a backdrop for characters running from point A to point B. There are some striking images of the volcano itself blowing off massive chunks of debris, giving some sense of the eruption’s overall god-like magnitude, but they mostly amount to spectacle for its own sake, never immediately affecting the action at hand.
Pompeii is Paul W.S. Anderson at his most disposable. Say what you will about his other mediocre-to-bad efforts, but at least they wore their affection for sleek, adolescent mayhem on their sleeve giving him some semblance of an authorial stamp. Pompeii, meanwhile, is an utterly generic, clumsy would-be epic that could probably have been made by any old journeyman. Running on low-energy throughout, you would never know this was the director’s passion project if not for its clearly massive budget.