Here's the last thing I ever would have expected out of Pompeii, that sword-thrust of 3-D gladiator-versus-volcano madness coming right at your disbelieving eyeholes. An hour or so in, when Vesuvius exhausts its portentous rumblings and blows its top (3-D!), I legitimately wasn't ready. Yes, all that third-act destruction is Pompeii's reason for existing, and probably your reason for bothering to read a Pompeii review, and the eruption certainly is teased with great effort all throughout that lava-free first hour — seriously, director Paul W.S. Anderson cuts to the mountain as often as Peter Jackson does to the ring. It's as distracting as all the mentions of the weather toward the end of The Buddy Holly Story.
But when Vesuvius does kaboom, it interrupts a perfectly spirited gladiator picture the likes of which Hollywood just doesn't make, a rousing slaves-versus-Romans close-combat thriller I was in no way ready to see chucked in favor of another CGI apocalypse. Kit Harington (Game of Thrones' Jon Snow) stars as Celtic Warrior Whose Name I Forget, an orphaned hunk with abs so sharply defined you could race Matchbox cars through the grooves between them. He's hauled from a bloody-puddle London slave pit to battle in Pompeii's glittering arena, which is the gladiator equivalent of triple-A ball, just one step down from Rome. En route, his chain gang runs into the carriage of Pompeiian princess Cassia (Emily Browning), a beauty who, like so many women in adventure movies, has a hole in her life the exact size and shape of our sweaty hero. Her horse is spooked and wounded, but Slave Hunk has taken the Equine Expertise +1 skill when leveling up, so he knows just what to do: Snap the sad beast's neck.
Is this the first case of horse murder as a meet-cute?
The romance is as fresh as the box of Arm & Hammer in the back of your fridge. Fortunately, there's no time to dwell on it, as Anderson is hustling the movie along to its key relationship: the terrifically entertaining friendship struck up between Slave Hunk and Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion pit fighter our hero is slated to face in to-the-death combat. These two immediately hit it off, each vowing to let the other die with honor — and each still insisting he will be the victor. Sadly, the script squanders this promising will-they-or-won't-they, and after a brawling practice match the two wind up as buddies who mostly go their separate ways, occasionally pitching in on each other's battles. These two are so likable together that this is quite a disappointment. It's as if the Dirty Dancing couple decided not to bother with the lift and instead boogie on opposite sides of the Catskills.
The destruction, when it comes, is fine. Anderson is an impressive crafter of pop-gothic images, and each shot of cataclysmic nonsense flows smoothly into the next, a feat once so fundamental to filmmaking that it still feels absurd to have to praise it. He's also vulgarian enough to use the 3-D for giddy thrills rather than that screen-expanding immersion favored by more blandly tasteful directors. His volcano pukes fireballs into the crowd, which is exactly what a 3-D volcano should do. Later, when the Tyrrhenian Sea cascades into the streets, Anderson stages grand, tawdry, computer-animated spectacle. Unlike most city-go-smash set-pieces, this is vibrant and surprising, only occasionally rote, the shots of screaming crowds and raining fire a skin over the heart and muscle of a story better told than many.
And all that pales before the gladiatorial stuff. Anderson's battles are crisp, brutal and stirring, and unlike Ridley Scott he doesn't try to shame us for wanting to see gladiators crack each other's skulls. The choreography is about killing and blocking rather than heroic poses, and Anderson distinguishes himself as the rare action director who shows us real bodies in real space in real reaction to each other, who prizes legibility over quick-cut dazzlement, who stages his fights with comic-book zeal rather than puffed-up, graphic-novel miserableness.
In the final minutes, Anderson goes all in on the love story, chucking in a for-the-ages romantic tragedy from nowhere and then daring to end on imagery so swooningly poetic that it set my preview audience howling. Laughs are laughs, though, so why knock it?
Anderson's chutzpah with this finale is something akin to building a city in the shadow of a volcano; it won't be a surprise when critics cover his Pompeii in ash and fire. Since he labors on relatively downmarket features — video-game adaptations, sword-and-sandal folderol like this — he's an easy target for anyone who has pride invested in the belief that a dumb gladiator flick is less honorable a cinematic event than the latest self-important superhero origin story. If Pompeii came out in summer, had an extra reel of kissing and was credited to anyone else, the world likely would give it a qualified thumbs-up and move on.
Oh, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris are all in here, too. They get three, one and two good moments, respectively, mostly in a sleepy half-hour about love and politics in the movie's middle.