Review: 'Pompeii'

How can a movie with this much hot lava leave me so cold?

The first sixty minutes of “Pompeii” are awful, bordering on unwatchable. A dreary cliche-a-minute love story about a gladiator with a heart of gold (he loves horses!) the moony, pale (really pale, considering her Mediterranean address) Princess who falls for him and the big powerful meanie who obstructs their noble coupling. Oh my sweet Jove it is boring.

The final forty-five minutes of the movie however are, by sheer force of will, irrefutably entertaining. At least there's raining death in the form of fireballs smashing up the place.

There is, of course, the inherent paradox that to enjoy “Pompeii” you need a big screen environment. Paul W.S. Anderson is one of the few directors that shoots in native 3D, and knows how to craft a striking image. This means that to take full advantage you will not be at liberty to make snide comments and actively mock the creaky dialogue and wooden performances, unless you are one of those jerks who talks at the movies.

Kit Harrington plays “The Celt,” and it is really bad casting. It's impossible not to think about “Game of Thrones” and Jon Snow, and during the lumbering first hour you'll be sitting there saying, “Man do I wish I were watching 'Game of Thrones' and not this bag of garbage.” All of that show's nuance, intricate storytelling and envelope-pushing style is nowhere to be found. The valiant gladiator versus the sadistic Roman still kinda plays when you are catching an old movie on TCM on a Sunday afternoon. But it's 2014 and “Pompeii”'s level of depth-free characterization with absolutely no creative spin is absolutely unacceptable.

The Celt and his fellow gladiator buddy Atticus (Adewale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje, who at least has some presence) train and talk smack and when the day of the big fight comes – a recreation of the mentally scarring slaughter of The Celt's youth – that's when the looming volcano finally goes boom.

Like the Irwin Allen shlock films of the 1970s such as “Earthquake” or “The Towering Inferno” or, my favorite, “The Swarm,” “Pompeii” is basically a whole lot of sitting around waiting for the THING that got you into the theater to happen. Finally it happens and then you get to see a whole lot of people run around and scream and die in, in this film's case, computer generated ways.

Kiefer Sutherland, bless him, is the only one who seems to understand that this movie is meant to be a good time. I can't quite put my finger on what kind of accent he's doing – is mouth full of soggy bread a region? - but at least it makes for some chuckles. He leers and lusts for The Celt's gal pal (Emily Browning.) She's the daughter of the town muckity muck Jared Harris, whose job is to have an English accent, and Carrie-Anne Moss, whose job is to make you say “THAT's Carrie-Anne Moss?!?”

Paul W.S. Anderson's best movies, “Event Horizon” and, believe it or not, the most recent “Resident Evil,” work well when they just go for broke and let the insanity happen. There's no such risk-taking in this snoozer. Yes, there are a few gorgeous frames, particularly of smoke trails over the city, a Greek chorus in golden masks and The Celt's traumatic memories, but even Anderson's dreadful “Three Musketeers” had a few good scenes. At its very best “Pompeii” can only offer you fragmented images.

I love Hollywood-ized Roman crap and I love men fighting to the death in an amphitheater. But the filler in between the action has to at least keep the engine revved up. “Pompeii,” alas, is nothing history will remember.