Wednesday, February 26, 2014

In Theaters: POMPEII (2014)

(Canada/Germany - 2014)

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.  Written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson.  Cast: Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Kiefer Sutherland, Emily Browning, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Sasha Roiz, Currie Graham. (PG-13, 105 mins)

In the 20 years since his 1994 debut SHOPPING, Paul W.S. Anderson has been an unabashedly style-over-substance filmmaker both reviled as a hack and a charlatan and praised as an unsung visionary.  He first gained attention for 1995's video-game adaptation MORTAL KOMBAT, which led to SHOPPING getting a belated US release in 1996 courtesy of Roger Corman.  EVENT HORIZON (1997) and SOLDIER (1998) quickly followed, but it was 2002's RESIDENT EVIL that seems to have set the course for his career.  A hit worldwide, RESIDENT EVIL spawned its own sequel (2004's RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE) that Anderson handed off to the hapless Alexander Witt so he could instead focus on 2004's AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, a botched misfire that proved to the nadir of two legendary franchises, with one of the most tragically prophetic tag lines ("Whoever wins, we lose") ever plastered on a one-sheet.  The miserable AVP essentially killed any momentum Anderson might've had going, and he's been fighting against the backlash since.  Even as the terrifying EVENT HORIZON has found a significant cult following after being met with shrugs 17 years ago, and SOLDIER seems a bit better now than it did then, there hasn't been and likely will not be a reassessment of AVP.  It's a terrible movie with almost no redeeming qualities, but it's well past the time to stop making it Anderson's albatross.

To his credit, Anderson soldiered on with the entertaining DEATH RACE 2000 reboot DEATH RACE (2008).  He stayed peripherally involved with the RESIDENT EVIL films, with Russell Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER) helming 2007's RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, but returned to direct 2010's brilliant RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE, a visual stunner in 3-D on the big screen, with an outstanding Tomandandy score. Anderson's been working exclusively in 3-D since, and he's proven to be one of the few directors to consistently use the frequently superfluous gimmick effectively.  Anderson's 2011 reimagining of THE THREE MUSKETEERS boasted some astonishing production design but no one really needed a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN-inspired take on Dumas, and 2012's RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION was OK but felt like AFTERLIFE leftovers.  Anderson's had moments of greatness in his career but I don't know that I'd go so far as to call him a "visionary."  One term that's often used to describe many of his films is "guilty pleasure," and I've even described them that way myself, as if it's necessary to justify enjoying an entertaining movie.  But it begs the question:  how many guilty pleasures does the guy have to make before he finally gets credit as a capable genre craftsman?

Anderson is back with POMPEII, a spectacular epic that opens in 62 AD with Roman general Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) ordering the massacre of an entire Celtic settlement in Britannia.  One boy, Milo, survives and is immediately abducted by slave dealers.  17 years later, the grown Milo (GAME OF THRONES' Kit Harington) is sold to gluttonous, Nero-like slave owner Graeceus (Joe Pingue) and sent with others to the majestic Pompeii, a city near the base of the mighty Mount Vesuvius.  Milo immediately proves his worth by being a Horse Whisperer of sorts for the kindly Cassia (SUCKER PUNCH's Emily Browning), daughter of spineless Pompeii leader Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss).  He's also pitted against the champion slave warrior Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who's--wait for it--one victory away from winning his freedom (is there any chance they won't set aside their differences and form an unlikely alliance?).  Meanwhile, Severus is dealing with a visit from now-Senator Corvus, who makes it quite clear that he intends to make Cassia his bride despite her obvious feelings for Milo, and all the while, like a giant symbol of the treachery and smoldering passion in the city below, Vesuvius churns, gurgles and burps, the hellfire within ready to boil over and explode, unleashing hell.

POMPEII is a silly and formulaic movie, but it's a lot of fun.  Anderson is a director who uses extensive CGI but he puts care into it, ensuring that it doesn't look cartoonish like, say, Renny Harlin's recent THE LEGEND OF HERCULES.  POMPEII boasts a $100 million budget, and it's pretty much all up there on the screen.  While the CGI is unavoidable, there's also elaborate sets that really lend legitimate atmosphere and help convey the feeling of an ancient era.  It still doesn't look as good as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SPARTACUS, but this is another time and for better or worse, CGI is just how it's done now, and to Anderson's credit, he doesn't cut corners in the visual presentation.  The storyline and character arcs offer little in the way of surprises, but true to his style-over-substance methods, Anderson makes sure the audience gets what it came for:  action, fight scenes, romance, outstanding visual effects, and even some humor (watch one particularly loathsome character get hit with a fireball that Vesuvius seems to be aiming right at him).  Harington and Browning aren't the most dynamic leads and Moss has almost nothing to do, but veteran character actor Akinnuoye-Agbaje steals every scene he's in and he and Harington convincingly convey the camaraderie and mutual respect in their newly-formed alliance.  They aren't quite Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in SPARTACUS, but they do a nice job.  The biggest misstep POMPEII makes is the horrible miscasting of Sutherland as Corvus.  Given the pulpy nature of the project, Corvus is a character that doesn't demand full-blown self-parody but really needs some over-the-top scenery-chewing.  Sutherland seems torn between playing it straight and hamming it up and ends up somewhere in an inert middle that never really works.  If you're going to play a preening, pompous Roman senator and you opt to use a lisp and a vaguely Irish brogue, then you may as well just completely throw yourself into it.  Ultimately, Sutherland never looks comfortable and his stilted performance--a Razzie nomination is inevitable--comes off like he's doing a restrained, monotone impression of Dr. Evil's ancient Roman ancestor.  Not since Jason Robards' deer-in-the-headlights portrayal of Brutus in 1970's JULIUS CAESAR has a good actor come off so badly in this type of setting.

If you aren't a fan of Anderson's past work, this isn't likely to change your opinion, but if you can take his films at face value and just appreciate his newest effort for the commercial genre fare that it is, POMPEII makes for a good guilty ple...uh, I mean, entertaining popcorn movie that you shouldn't have to concoct excuses for enjoying.

No comments:

Post a Comment