There are times when a movie is so stuffed full of cheese that I can’t help but cackle in my seat and try to enjoy the goofiness that is unfolding in front of me. No matter how serious the scene or how high the stakes supposedly are, I just laugh. No matter how gruesome the scene or how dramatic the filmmaker intends the story to be, the execution is so fundamentally flawed that every scene ends up painfully silly. “Pompeii” embodies that kind of guilty pleasure, and is easily one of the dumbest major motion pictures I’ve seen in years and the most unintentionally hilarious spectacle in ages.
This is a movie that defies logic—marrying a sword and sandals in an historically epic and disastrous film. It’s the bastardly red-headed stepchild of movies, like “Gladiator” and “Volcano.” It’s an appropriate combination, I suppose, given the actual history surrounding Pompeii.
History takes a back seat to histrionics as director Paul WS Anderson (not the good one, the one who did the “Resident Evil” movies) delivers another turgid movie. It’s big on bombast but light on anything that might be considered human drama.
The story centers on a young slave named Milo (Dylan Schombing) who loses his mother to the murderous Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Like all poor people in ancient times, he becomes a hardened warrior with an axe to grind. Eventually, he is brought to the city of Pompeii with his fellow slaves to engage in gladiatorial combat. While on the chain-gang Milo encounters a beautiful young woman, Cassia (Emily Browning), and the hormones begin to flow like warm rivers of lava flowing beneath Vesuvius. Of course, this romance is basically doomed not just because of their lot in life but because of the fire-laden, ashy mountain of doom waiting to explode.
The one thing working in “Pompeii”’s favor is the inevitable demise of all its thinly developed characters. It’s odd in a movie about star-crossed lovers and slaves fighting for their freedom that I ended up rooting for the volcano—but I totally was. Once the ground began quaking and the smoke started spewing, I gleefully rubbed my hands together and looked forward to watching these characters die badly.
“Pompeii” is one of those wonderfully terrible movies that looks like it was made with a budget of $14 and the wardrobe from a high-school theater production of “Julius Caeser.” Everything has a cheap look and feel, like watching the low-rent direct-to-video version of better movies. There’s so much cribbed from better, more successful films, like “Titanic.” There’s the class war love affair, the inevitable historical event that frames the story, and my favorite: the scenery-chewing villain who is so unbelievably evil that he transforms into something inhuman. “Titanic” had Billy Zane stomp through the movie like Godzilla in the middle of Tokyo. Sutherland apparently took that performance as inspiration and has thrown down the gauntlet, declaring, “I’ll show you over-acting, Zane!” Sutherland isnt just chewing the scenery; he’s devouring it, digesting it, then producing overacting excrement all over the audience. In any other movie, this would be bad, but Sutherland’s epic amount of overacting may have saved “Pompeii,” in my opinion.
Paul WS Anderson is a director of such limited vision. Everything he does devolves into camp so quickly. “Pompeii” is a lot like his version of “The Three Musketeers:” well-intentioned but woefully misguided. I can think of few directors working so consistently that lack a definitive style. A Paul WS Anderson film usually possesses three things: bad acting, a lack of pretension, and an abusive use of special effects. “Pompeii” is no different. It may not be pretentious, and it definitely has a blue-collar approach to the material. The cast is made up of C-list actors who struggle to bring any believability to these shenanigans.
“Pompeii” has a few guilty pleasure moments, but most come from unintentional hilarity. I would almost—almost!—recommend this film just for people to see Kiefer Sutherland’s hilarious performance. Still, I don’t know if I could, in good conscience, ask someone to spend $10 for 10 minutes of unbridled hilarity. It is, however, enough to grant the movie a single, solitary star.
Starring Dylan Schombing, Kiefer
Sutherland, Emily Browning
Directed by Paul WS Anderson