I have mentioned before that when you REALLY take a look at what types of films are out there, let’s be honest, a large number of them tend to be the bid budget, effects driven sort that most frequently dominate the Summer film season and also tend to be the ones that haul in copious amounts of cash at the box office. Lately, though, studios are starting to release this style of films much earlier in the year, I think hoping to get a potential jump on the Summer and Holiday seasons and make their mark as what would hopefully be a surprise hit. “The LEGO Movie” has been the example of this so far in 2014 (even though only made for a modest $60 million), and now we get another big budget “event” film in TriStar’s $100 million gamble, “Pompeii”.
And for me, the gamble actually paid off. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (“Event Horizon“, “Death Race“, “The Three Musketeers“), this story starts off in ancient Britannia where we see the invasion of a village of Horse Celts by the Romans and witness a young boy see his parents killed on the order of a very nasty Roman commander Corvus (Keifer Sutherland) and his right hand, Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Surviving the slaughter, the story fast forwards to the year 79 A.D. where a now grown up Milo (Kit Harington) is now a slave and fighting as a gladiator in an outlying province, making his mark immediately and drawing the attention of his Roman masters who ultimately decide it’s time for him to be on display in a bigger venue, Pompeii. During the trek to the city with other slaves, he has a chance encounter with a lady of Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning) who takes initial notice of Milo. From here we get a chance to learn more about Cassia as we find she has just returned from a trip to Rome, much to her relief, and now she is back home to her parents Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris & Carrie-Anne Moss). Back to Milo, he is cast into the ownership of slave owner Graecus (Joe Pingue). Milo also finds he has to prove himself OUTSIDE the arena, fending off attacks from other slaves who apparently just don’t like him as he is a Celt, and through the initial confrontation, he then becomes cellmates with the resident champion of Pompeii, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Initially set up as rivals, the two have a wary “trust” between them after Atticus protects Milo when his life is threatened again during a training session. Meanwhile, we then discover a rather unwelcome guest has arrived in the city, the now Senator Corvus and Proculus, representing Rome and it’s ruler’s desire to see Pompeii become more modern with the assistance of Cassia’s father Severus, who we find is a wealthy merchant, and whose daughter has met Corvus while in Rome, prompting the Senator to be seeking more than just ways to invest in the city’s revival. From this point, we see Corvus’ scheming, corrupt ways and slimy character, Cassia’s unwilling betrothal to him via blackmailing her father, but also her next direct encounter with Milo that cements their fast growing attraction, almost at the cost of Milo’s life. But once Milo is aware that Proculus is in Pompeii, his mind is focused on getting even with his parents’ killer. Plus, a plot to have both Atticus and Milo killed during the gladiatorial games becomes the FINAL springboard for BOTH men to find real friendship and justice, each for their own reasons.
Now, throughout this story unfolding, Mt. Vesuvius has been slowly awakening…subtle quakes, lakes below the mountain starting to boil, sections of earth split open, lava starts appearing inside the caldera, and there is even indications of cracks starting to appear in building walls, all indicating the instability of a city that still doesn’t even truly realize or grasp its pending fate. And when the mountain finally does burst in the first initial blast, the fear, unbelief, and panic in the populace becomes all too real and you realize the jarring truth we know from the actual history of this event…..no one is going to make it out. The mountain erupts with increasing fury and as the city starts to be systematically torn to pieces, it gives us the backdrop for the final confrontations Atticus and Milo face respectively. And to end it all, there are the moments that Milo and Cassia FINALLY get to have, even though we already know it’s a love that is doomed, not from heartbreak, but from the raw power of nature.
The film most certainly doesn’t reach the same overall quality of “Gladiator”, the film it felt like overall, BUT, it was actually a smoothly paced disaster drama that still worked for me a lot more than I thought it would. I could accept the quickness of Milo and Cassia’s attraction, the evilness of Corvus and Proculus representing the not always so hidden contempt the people of Pompeii had for the Romans, and the initially wary then bonding friendship between Atticus and Milo. Simply, the film doesn’t drag everything out. It gives you the whole story in a briskly written torrent of constant motion and pace, and asks you to accept it for what it is. The entire cast does well for these roles and they play the characters with enough depth to get us invested in them, even if they’re not COMPLETELY fleshed out. And visually, Vesuvius going off is quite visceral and arresting when it occurs to you that this actually happened to Pompeii. To see this beast awaken, showering the city with ash and smoke, burning chunks of earth, a tidal wave, and ultimately a wall of burning smoke and fire that seals the city and its people’s fates…it’s a sobering reminder of what is harbored under this earth we walk on. So this is a film I would say is most definitely worth seeing for some escapist spectacle that may not be as complete in its delivery than other films of its ilk, but it is a satisfying ride.
As always, this is for YOUR consideration and comment. Until next time, thank you for reading!