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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Kiefer Sutherland (left) and Kit Harington star in "Pompeii," now playing.

"Pompeii" is far from a disaster


There's a growing cult for director Paul W.S. Anderson, one that baffles this sad outsider.

His most notable achievement to date is the "Resident Evil" franchise, which peaked early at middling (the first chapter from 2002 is in the running for the tin foil trophy for Best Movie Based on a Video Game) and has yet to top that mark.

The last time we checked in on the impenetrable saga of Alice and the Umbrella Corporation – a company so irrationally evil, it makes Weyland-Yutani seem like the Better Business Bureau – it resembled its PlayStation origins more than a movie, often hilariously so.

But as the box office will tell you, the "Resident Evil" movies have fans, especially overseas and, most alarmingly, amongst some critics. Yes, a band of very articulate (and admittedly almost convincing) film writers – believers of "vulgar auteurism" – drank the Anderson Kool-Aid, putting the director on their Mt. Rushmore for his slick use of depth and imagery while seemingly ignoring pretty much everything else.

So imagine my surprise as I trotted my way out of "Pompeii," happily sipping down some of the Paul W.S. Anderson Kool-Aid myself. The sword-and-sandal disaster flick marks a slight, but much appreciated, step for Anderson away from the loud, fake, reimagined "Matrix" coolness of his previous works. His latest is not what one would call "art" or "a good movie," but it is mighty entertaining. It promises dumb, greasy, and fun spectacle, and it satisfyingly comes through on its word.

After watching his people massacred by Roman soldiers as a child, little Milo grows up into a fierce, dour gladiator slave named The Celt (Kit Harington from "Game of Thrones"). When his deadly moves and glistening abs become too accomplished for little arena fights anymore, his curly-bearded owner decides to graduate him to the Roman big leagues. The first stop on the way: Pompeii.

In between testy training bouts and backroom fights with his fellow gladiators (if the coliseum fighting was the reality TV of the era, Milo would be the cast member who says, "I'm not here to make friends" in all of his confessionals), our hero finds time to romance Cassia (Emily Browning of "Sucker Punch"), the city's princess.

Unfortunately, a corrupt Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland) has his eyes on Cassia as well and might just have the political sway over her parents (Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) to force a marriage.

Even the city seems to be falling apart and crumbling under the mounting pressure and drama. But nope, that'd be the doing of Mount Vesuvius. After spending the first 45 minutes of "Pompeii" ominously venting and bubbling in the background, the volcano decides to speed things along by (spoiler alert for those who've never taken a history class, much less know what the word history means) blowing the hell up, bombarding the city with ash and flaming rock.

It's up to Milo to save Cassia, avoid her raging suitor and get out of Dodge before they become petrified exhibits in a historic ghost town.

The result plays like the doomed rich girl/poor boy romance of "Titanic" without the pretension or one of Roland Emmerich's disaster features without the bloat. For those not following along, both of those are good things. Anderson and his screenwriters – including a screenplay polish from "Downton Abbey" scribe Julian Fellowes – aren't particularly digging up much new material, but it's a welcome change to have Anderson working with something resembling characters, story and stakes, even if they're all clichés. As trite as the plotlines are, however, they get the job done.

Harington and Browning are effective, even if they're more competent than they are compelling. Far more interesting is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Milo's arena rival turned ally, who captures the audience's attention with his motivated tough guy performance whenever he's on screen. And then there's Sutherland, unconvincingly sampling a British accent while playing the wealthy psychotic wannabe suitor role to its utmost Billy Zane-iest. Watching him attempt to out-growl, out-snarl and out-villain an erupting, civilization-ending volcano is just the campy delight a fun disaster movie needs.

They – along with Anderson's slick visual prowess, using God's eye shots from above Pompeii to tease the impending disaster and give the film some impressive scale – keep the viewers mildly invested through the first half's handsomely dressed but typical swooning and political intrigue.

Eventually, it gets to be volcano time and that's when "Pompeii" comes through the most on its promise of entertainment. Anderson turns out to be a more than capable orchestrator of spectacle and chaos, starting from Vesuvius' awe-worthy initial eruption – complete with collapsing coliseum as well.

As the impressively rendered smoke, ash and hellfire rains down on the city (note: don't see it in 3-D; it's dark enough as is without the tinted lens' help), the film finds new ways to bring on the epic, intensely entertaining destruction. Volcanic meteors rain down on fleeing Romans. Characters run from grandiose tidal waves. Our heroes face off with despicable heavies in one-on-one sword fights – and, most memorably, in a chariot race – while the world crumbles around them in mesmerizing visual detail.

It's the kind of spectacle more commonly found in late July rather than mid-February. Best of all, clocking in at an efficient 98 minutes, "Pompeii" moves quickly, never wearing out its welcome.

Of course, not all is perfect. Despite having a resume filled with action flicks, Anderson's fight sequences still look fake. The swords look like plastic, punches look pulled in the editing, his use of slow motion is cheap and the camera is already too close on the action even before Anderson decides to incomprehensibly zoom in closer. Though the scenes still provide amusement, he's far better when the action goes big.

Anderson's also still not much of a dramatist. A moment where Milo and Cassia gaze upon the horrific destruction, for instance, plays completely wrong. But at least it does so with a sense of self-aware campy amusement. The "Resident Evil" movies think they're cool; "Pompeii" knows it's silly. Yet even so, by the time the ending comes around, it's almost, dare I say, sweet. It's certainly more effective than you'd expect it be.

I suppose that's "Pompeii" all wrapped up in a phrase, though. As it turns out, in making a disaster movie, Anderson's managed to make his least disastrous – and most genuinely entertaining – movie yet.



Theaters and showtimes for Pompeii
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