No lava lost in crusty disaster movie Pompeii 

Onion Volcano

Onion Volcano

When it's a disaster movie, Pompeii, the latest action epic directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Soldier) is pretty impressive. But when it's a dull sword-and-sandal epic — which, alas, is much of its running time — it's just a disaster. Poorly paced and emotionally stunted, Anderson's lava opera makes for fitfully beautiful spectacle, but its best bits are few and far between.

In part, that's because nobody tries very hard, save for Oz star Adewale Akkinouye-Agbaje and a freakishly effusive Kiefer Sutherland. It's a very low-stakes end-of-the-world period epic, until suddenly it's not — at which point fire rains from the sky, tidal waves surge, and the characters you didn't care about before start running for their lives. At first, you may cheer for aspirant eye candy Kit Harington's abs, or maybe your favorite character actor (Carrie-Anne Moss, perhaps, or Jared Harris). But eventually, you'll root for the volcano.

That Pompeii is vacuous and fitfully involving wouldn't be such a problem if so much of the movie weren't given over to a nominal romance. Harington plays Milo, a slave who catches the eye of Cassia (Emily Browning) after he kills her horse. That's not a euphemism: Milo, the last surviving member of a clan of horse-mastering Celts, sees that the horse leading Cassia's carriage is fatally wounded, so he snaps its neck to ease its pain. So much for the meet-cute.

Trouble is, this is the only quasi-intense moment Milo and Cassia share that doesn't involve outrunning a wall of liquid fire. She eyes him at a party, and it's almost a moment; he abducts her, and it's almost a thing. But mostly because Harington is too busy looking sultry to share a scene with ... well, anyone, sparks don't fly until sparks start flying. He's no more convincing when Milo inevitably bros down with fellow gladiator Atticus (Akkinouye-Agbaje) to fight a corrupt, mustache-twirling Roman senator (a woefully miscast Sutherland, who seemingly endures 24 hours of real-time embarrassment).

This central conflict isn't helped by the listless performers (though Akkinouye-Agbaje tries in his early trash-talking scenes). But it's ruined by the incapable director, who's become something of a cult auteur for reasons no one watching Pompeii will fathom. When the characters finally get into the ring to fight for their lives, the action is sometimes impressively shot — on the rare occasion Anderson allows you to see it. More often, his hyperactive to-the-bone editing and unnaturally blown-out close-ups result in a visual muddle. Imagine trying to watch Spartacus in fullscreen on your parents' busted CRT TV, while your kid brother channel-surfs wantonly.

Pompeii's many weaknesses could be more easily overlooked if more of the film consisted of Anderson's specialty: CGI death and destruction. Pure eye candy is Anderson's directorial calling card; let it be written that the demolition of the title city is genuinely spectacular, a series of elaborate late-film set pieces unburdened by emotional baggage. Too bad his Pompeii makes an ash of everything else.

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