Spoiler alert: At the end of “Pompeii,” Mount Vesuvius blows its top and wipes out the ancient title city. There’s fire, and flooding, and lots of people die. The problem with the movie is that it doesn’t happen fast enough.
Once the volcanic fireworks get going, this lumbering disaster of a disaster movie becomes an almost-tolerable noisy distraction. But it waits a full hour before letting Vesuvius roar, subjecting viewers to a deadly dull retread of “Gladiator” in the process. By the time the third-act explosions started, I was ready to blow my top too.
In place of Russell Crowe, “Pompeii” substitutes the considerably less imposing Kit Harrington, of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” as Milo, a slave thrust into ancient gladiatorial combat. Mr. Harrington adopts a glowering scowl early on and then determinedly sticks with it, as if afraid he’ll forget how to return should he chance another facial expression.
But what he lacks in cinematic presence he makes up in rippled abs and Vesuvius-sized biceps, which you are not supposed to miss. “Did you see his muscles?” chirps a young lady character early on, just in case you were busy checking your phone.
As a rumble-ready gladiator who gets in a lot of fights, Mr. Harrington at least has something to do. The same can’t be said for Emily Browning, who plays Milo’s love interest, Cassia, or Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris, who play Cassia’s noble parents. Cassia spends most of the movie standing on the sidelines making doe-eyes at Milo, whom she falls for because he kills her horse (really). Her parents spend most of the movie taking spittle-flecked abuse from evil Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland).
Mr. Sutherland isn’t truly menacing, but growls and sneers and camps up his scenes with admirably goofy gusto. He’s the only performer who seems to be having any fun, because he’s the only one who seems to know what kind of movie he’s in — a low-budget genre romp dressed up with an oversized budget. Which suggests that none of the others had ever seen one of director Paul W. S. Anderson’s movies before.
Mr. Anderson has long specialized in overblown genre junk — movies like “Resident Evil,” “Mortal Kombat,” the “Death Race” remake, and the cash-in monstrosity “Alien vs. Predator.” At best, his movies are inadvertently competent, as if having stumbled and fallen into some workable formulaic groove. More often, however, they are merely bad, crafted with a sort of witless indifference that suggests that Mr. Anderson cannot tell the difference between terrible and tolerable.
“Pompeii” is not Mr. Anderson’s worst movie, but it’s not one of his best either. Despite having directed “Mortal Kombat” — a movie based on a video game about nothing except two players fighting each other — he still cannot direct a coherent brawl. And despite a budget reportedly in the range of $100 million, many of his special effects sequences still seem shoddy.
With its cheap-looking sets and video-game quality CGI, its cast of recognizable but not exactly famous faces, and its movie-mashup script — a blend of “Gladiator,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic,” “Pompeii” struggles mightily to achieve mediocrity. But (and here’s another spoiler) it rarely hits its mark.
CREDITS: Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, screenplay by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson
RATING: PG-13 for bloody gladiator combat
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS