Monday 5 May 2014


(Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)

The influence of video games on Anderson's work is fascinating. It stands to reason, given that his reputation is founded on adaptations of two leading game franchises; Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. But it is more interesting when he applies video game conventions to genres not traditionally associated with the form. So Pompeii stuffs the first two acts with gladiatorial combat - arena death-matches of the type featured in many games. Anderson shoots action well; eschewing the handheld, hyperactively edited style so common in modern action cinema in favour of nicely composed long take scenes. He spotlights the stunts and the movement, meaning that his fight sequences are always comprehensible and exciting on that basis.
The third act - after the eruption of the volcano and the transformation into a disaster movie - tips the hat to a different sort of game. Here Anderson's characters struggle to escape from the maze of the city of Pompeii as fireballs rain from the sky.
Those characters are problematic for their thinness. There is the hero, the Celt (Kit Harington) a British gladiator brought to Pompeii from the provinces. He falls in love - at smouldering first sight, naturally - with Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a Pompeii businessman (Jared Harris), eager to gain the patronage of the new Caesar, represented by Senator Corvus (Keifer Sutherland), who many years before was responsible for the death of the Celt's parents when he crushed an uprising in Britain. The Celt befriends the badass gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinuoye-Agbaje) just before everything goes, well, up in smoke.
Anderson is good at cramming events into shortened time-frames, giving his movies an inbuilt clock, another video-game trope. So that last act of Pompeii, filled with people fleeing, fighting, chasing, is tremendous fun. The first two are more workaday. Surprisingly old-fashioned in its approach, the story makes perfunctory attempts at Roman political chicanery before Anderson's genre mash-up spin the wheel settles on a mix of gladiator movie, disaster film and tragic love story. The love story is given short shrift - it's never been a strength of this director - but the other two genres do fine, helped by the impressive, often stunning action scenes.
Harington and Browning look pretty, but neither has much of a character to play. Sutherland hams it up well enough, but Akinuoye-Agbaje more or less steals the movie, with his malevolent leer and fearsome growl. The cgi is impressive once the apocalypse comes, bringing tsunamis, earthquakes and ash-clouds blotting out the sun in it's wake.

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