Review: One part ‘Gladiator,’ one part ‘Titanic,’ Paul Anderson’s ‘Pompeii’ is entirely silly

People often misuse the term “camp” to mean anything that is exaggerated and broad and somewhat silly, but they also use it as a somewhat coded term for “gay” when using it to describe entertainment. When originally used, though, “camp” referred to something that provided amusement but by accident, something that is funny by virtue of being exaggeratedly stylized or artificial. It had nothing to do with “gay,” and real camp never winks at the audience to let it know that it’s a joke.

“Pompeii” is true camp, and I spent much of the last hour laughing pretty much non-stop. It’s a very silly movie, but it is played dead straight, and part of what had me laughing the entire time was the thought of Paul W.S. Anderson taking this all very, very seriously. The script, credited to “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes as well as Lee and Janet Batchler, feels like they took the scripts for “Gladiator” and “Titanic” and then just shuffled the pages and changed some names. It is shameless in its desire to be just as romantic and just as affecting as Cameron’s movie, but it reveals just how tricky the balancing act was that he accomplished.

Milo (Kit Harington) is a Celt whose family is wiped out in the film’s opening when he is still very young, and then we jump forward to 79 A.D., when Milo has been captured and enslaved and is taken to Pompeii to become a gladiator. Almost immediately, he is pitted against Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a veteran gladiator who is only one fight away from winning his freedom and his citizenship. Also almost immediately, he crosses paths with Cassia (Emily Browning), a beautiful young woman who has just returned from Rome, where she grew disgusted by politics. In particular, she was disgusted by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a powerful man who not only led the destruction of Milo’s village but who also wants to make Cassia his wife. Her parents, Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), are desperate to win Roman support for their plans to build a new super coliseum, and they seem almost willing to use their daughter as a negotiating point, something which does not sit well with her.

It’s sort of amazing to see how much legwork they do to try to make all of the character stuff seem urgent when, obviously, the main attraction here is the volcano blowing up. There are a few scenes peppered throughout the film where we see early indicators that things are heating up, and it feels like those scenes are there to remind you that the main event is coming. The same is true of the gladiator battle scenes, which are all staged with enthusiasm and well-played by Harington and Akinnuoye-Agbaje. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the action scenes. At this point, Anderson’s become modestly competent and staging and shooting this stuff, and he seems like one of the few directors working who is genuinely excited to have a 3D camera on-set. The problem is that none of it really matters until things start blowing up, so why drag it out as far as they do?

The romance in the film is one of those movie romances where people fall in love because they are (A) pretty and (B) in vague proximity to one another. They ride a horse together one time, and that’s enough for them to be in love forever. I know you have to assume a certain amount of shorthand, but I find the whole “steamy staring equals genuine love” thing ridiculous. There’s more genuine chemistry between Milo and Atticus than there is between Milo and Cassia, and more reason for them to help each other once the volcano starts to go off, but obviously that would be a very different film.

I do like that they very quickly make Atticus into a good guy, and that they feature him in a fair amount of the film. Akinnuoye-Agbaje has a great time playing the good guy, and he is by far the most interesting of the three leads. I feel like both Browning and Harington are hobbled by the script. They’re both fine, and Browning actually gives some of her scenes a weight they don’t earn, but they can only do so much with what’s on the page.

It doesn’t help that they’re having to compete with Kiefer Sutherland, who chews all the scenery there is and then just keeps right on chewing. I am somewhat awed by just how insane and over the top his work is. One of my favorite terrible choices actors make is when they play ancient Roman and they end up doing a British accent, and Kiefer’s English accent is remarkable.

I don’t mean that in the good way, either.

By the time the volcano reveals itself to be both sentient and a bit of a smart-ass, timing its destruction for maximum comic value, “Pompeii” is a mess, but it is at least funny about it. Since I’m fairly sure not one of the laughs is intentional, this really does qualify as high camp, and if you’re willing to spend your money on a not-especially-good movie for the sheer pleasure of watching CG fire annihilate a cast who looks happy to finally be done delivering the non-stop ridiculous dialogue, then you might enjoy yourself. Anyone looking for a genuinely decent film, though, should be warned that this is more disaster than movie.

“Pompeii” opens today.