Pompeii Movie Review

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 09•14

Conan the Barbarian + Gladiator + Spartacus = … Pompeii?

Pompeii is a gladiator epic/romance (though not a movie about romance among gladiators, which would be something altogether different) set against the backdrop of an ill- tempered Vesuvius. The hero, a brash, inexplicably well groomed Celtic slave with wavy-haired good looks, is intent both on revenge and romancing a becoming young noblewoman (played by Emily Browning). Before Vesuvius finally blows its top, raining destruction on virtuous and villainous alike, there’s much of both (romancing and revenge, that is) to be had.

Pompeii is a film with no pretensions of originality. Kit Harrington’s Milo—our noble Celt—has a backstory lifted directly from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian. Both Conan and Milo are the last survivors of a brutally exterminated tribe, both were enslaved, both were trained to fight in the arena, both are simple men yearning for vengeance and freedom, yada yada. Both of them even put beat-downs on unfortunate equines—one out of pique, and one for more noble reasons.

Once the story moves to the gladiatorial arena at Pompeii, the screenwriters leave Conan behind, seeking inspiration from cable TV’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand (renamed “Spartacus: War of the Damned” in one of the all-time television WTF moves). Not only are cocksure Milo’s struggles are reminiscent of those endured by a newly enslaved Spartacus, but there’s a near one-to-one correspondence between the supporting cast of the cable series and Milo’s various tormentors and frenemies. There’s the sly, venal slave master, the hulking Nubian badass (though in Spartacus he’s an overseer rather than gladiator), the cruel fellow gladiator, and the raven-haired beauty who beckons, wistfully, from beyond the pain and filth of the arena. There’s even a scene in which a horny Roman pays to feel up one of the gladiators, in a tame, if not-so-subtle homage to Blood and Sand’s numerous scenes of toga-clad debauchery.

As previously mentioned, revenge is central to Pompeii, and the Conan-esque backstory provides the motivation for vengeance aplenty. The objects of Milo’s simmering hatred are conveniently close by, in the person of a crass Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland) and a towering centurion played by Shasha Roiz, of Caprica and Grimm, and the paths of the three inevitably cross. At this point, the film becomes a bit less Spartacus and a bit more Gladiator. Though Milo never displays the expert tactical chops of Russell Crowe’s vengeful throat slasher, his ability to win over the crowd, excel in arena—both as leader and combatant—and provoke his enemies into subverting arena competition to seek his death—are reminiscent of Gladiator in the extreme. Just as in Gladiator, events somehow twist in such a manner as to put the hero’s arch-enemy in the arena with him. Wildly unlikely, you say? Hey, audiences bought it once, so they can apparently buy it again.

Not Quite

All of this begs the question, who did Pompeii want to be when it grew up? Did its intrepid screenwriters set off to rip of everyone equally, or was there a particular story they were burning (get it, get it?) to retell? As it turns out, there was one movie, above all others, that’s spinning in its cinematic grave, eager to rise like an undead pharaoh and shove the Pompeii pretender from its celluloidal throne. And it’s not a gladiatorial slashfest, it’s the most box-office-orific forbidden-love-plus-natural-disaster tale of them all, Titanic. Yes, Titanic. Like Titanic, Pompeii features young lovers from different sides of the proverbial tracks, brought together in a passionate, if ultimately doomed, embrace. The concept of eternal love—one that tragedy has frozen in time at the moment of its flowering (before the arguments about whose turn it is to do the dishes, who’s not being supportive of the other’s career, and the daily relationship grind that doesn’t go on for an eternity, but can seem to) is a key fixture in both stories.

So, does Pompeii succeed at its ultimate goal? Does it rise above the blood-stained sand to tell a transcendent tale of love gained and lost, with the two events converging at what’s essentially the same lovely, longing, horrible moment? You be the judge. I’m too busy working on my latest screenplay, Hindenburg, to figure it out.

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