Friday, February 21, 2014

Do You Like Movies About Gladiators? POMPEII

Hardly the first bit of fiction to spin a yarn about the final days of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city infamously swallowed up by its nearby volcano’s eruption, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii is a sturdy evocation of old B-movie energy and pleasures. Its ties to cinema past – a little prestige Roman epic here, a little trashy sword-and-sandals actioner there – are earnest and sometimes exciting. This is a film with actors walking around lavishly fake sets in flowing togas and militaristic leather, speaking in vaguely English accents to denote their existence in the past. It features a love-at-first-sight slave boy/rich girl romance, Ancient Roman Empire intrigue, plots for revenge, threats of slave revolt, gladiatorial combat, and a subplot involving the funding for a new construction project. There’s something for everyone. Because Anderson never condescends to the material, throwing himself into making fine use of widescreen spaces and crackling effects work, it’s an empty diversion that comes by its schlock honestly and unpretentiously.

In the past fifteen years or so, Anderson has become one of our most reliably vivid visual storytellers, whether it be in a horror film (Event Horizon), an actioner (Death Race), a swashbuckler (The Three Musketeers), a sci-fi splatterfest (Alien vs. Predator), or all of the above (the Resident Evils). Now, those aren’t all great films or even good films, though I have a soft spot for some of them. But what they have is commitment to style and design that turns out terrific genre imagery and occasional fluid sequences of impressive action. They’re hardly what you’d call prestige pictures. They're the kind of mid-range studio fare that’s easily ignored or written off indiscriminately as nothing but garbage. But there’s a difference between lazy trash and artful trash and Anderson almost unfailingly brings the spirit of artful visual play to any project. In Pompeii, he designs a gloriously fake ancient city, a mix of shiny CGI equivalents of matte paintings and studio sets not too far removed from the kind Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper used for their Last Days of Pompeii in 1935. Within this overtly movie-ish setting, he lets his framing and staging pop with enjoyable momentum, pleasing symmetries, and striking shots.

One striking shot occurs right at the beginning, when a young Celtic boy wakes up after being knocked out cold while Romans slaughtered his entire village. He finds the corpses of his father and other rebels dangling by their feet from a lone tree in the center of a vast field. The boy grows up to be an enslaved gladiator (played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) who is taken to Pompeii to compete in their tournament. He’s the slave who’ll catch the eye of the rich girl (Emily Browning). She’s the daughter of Pompeii’s leaders (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), and spends her time fleeing the unwanted advances of a Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). That senator happens to be the man who led the massacre of the slave boy’s village (small world) and happens to now be in Pompeii to pay an imperially threatening visit to the town which is simmering with potentially rebellious undercurrents.

These plots are all stock elements put together by screenwriters Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson with dutiful coincidences. After all, how better to make us care about the town that’s about to get buried in lava than populate it with characters engaged in colorful cardboard historical melodramas? I haven’t even mentioned the champion slave (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who will get his freedom if he kills the boy in combat. There’s a lot of conflict in this little town. Something bloody was going to go down here even without the volcano blowing its top.

The characters and plots are engaging in a rote way, but what really makes them click is the casting. Harington walks into the picture abs-first, swaggering down a dungeon corridor and into the arena in a fine entrance. He’s a chiseled hero and good match for his foe, who Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays as a tough guy you just know will come to team up with the man he’s forced to fight and attempt to get back at their enslavers. It’s a long time coming, but fairly satisfying when it does. Then there’s the romantic co-lead, Browning, who doesn’t speak so much as breathes every line from between perpetually parted lips. Harris, all gravitas, and Moss, all tough caring, lend a fine sense of parental authority to the proceedings, while Sutherland is all patrician slime. They do good work with thin material, much like their director, who makes them look great and, working with cinematographer Glen MacPherson in their fourth collaboration, brings his considerable visual interest.

It’s the rare movie that’s never fully convincing, sometimes almost laughable, and yet grows more urgent and involving every step of the way. It ends on a high downer note as the gladiator movie turns into a rumbling disaster movie. Rolling walls of acrid smoke, oozing lava, collapsing pillars, crumbling ground, and crashing waves fly off the screen (the 3D is flinchingly good in this department) as extras stumble around, smacked by debris, spilling down cracking staircases, and flailing about in flames. Pompeii is falling apart like there’s no tomorrow, but there’s still plenty of time for the stock subplots to finish off in predictable but largely satisfying ways in sword fights, chariot chases, thundering comeuppances, sacrificial acts, and a kiss. There’s not much to Pompeii in the end – or much to Pompeii in the end, come to think of it – overall nothing more than shiny schlock. But because Anderson stages the material earnestly, confidently, with a nice cast and visual appeal, it’s endearing schlock all the same. 

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