In a nutshell: Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in southern Italy, erupted in 79 AD, obliterating the nearby city of Pompeii and leaving the baked corpses of its residents preserved in thick coats of volcanic ash..
That's about it. Given the swift finality of this event, any movie about it must consist largely of prologue. And so the writers of the new movie Pompeii have devised a love story, played out amid much gladiatorial combat, to lead us up to the crowning cataclysm. Fine. But the participation of director Paul W.S Anderson in this project will stir wariness in some prospective viewers—this is the proud hack responsible for the Resident Evil films, as well as AVP: Alien vs. Predator and a notably knuckleheaded Death Race remake.
But Anderson's unfeigned enthusiasm for fantasy schlock and bombastic digital effects turns out to be a pretty good match for this generic material. He is unfazed by the silliness of the love story—a star-crossed union of hunky slave and noble beauty—and he revels in the delirious mayhem by which it's surrounded. (A 3D traditionalist, he's delighted to fling boulders, swords and flinders straight out into our faces.)
The movie begins in Britannia in 62 AD, with a Celtic revolt being brutally quelled by Roman soldiers led by the sneering Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who dispatches two rebels before the eyes of their young son, Milo. The kid is clapped into chains and grows up to become Game of Thrones heartthrob Kit Harington. After distinguishing himself in some preliminary gladiatorial action, Milo is dragged off to the death-match capital of Pompeii. Along the way he encounters the dainty Cassia (Emily Browning, of Sucker Punch), whose horse has foundered on a country road. Milo, a horse-whisperer of sorts, helpfully snaps the doomed beast's neck, and he and Cassia fall instantly in love. Whatever.
In Pompeii, Milo is consigned to the murky slave cells, where he meets champion gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, of Thor: The Dark World). They're antagonists at first, but naturally become buddies. Meanwhile, Corvus, now a Roman senator, has come to town to do some business with local real-estate magnate Severus (Jared Harris). He also has his eye on Severus' daughter—Cassia, of course—and soon crosses paths with Milo, who bears an understandable grudge against the man who killed his parents.
All of this plot boilerplate is goosed along by frequent cutaways to nearby Vesuvius as it rumbles and glows and finally explodes, spewing rocks and lava and raining down fireballs on the terrified Pompeiians. The resulting chaos is impressively over-the-top, and director Anderson—now completely in his element—doubles down by bringing in a CGI tidal wave to crash through the narrow streets. As gaudy genre uproar goes, this isn't bad.
Anderson also devises several lively arena battles—especially a long one in which a handful of slave gladiators triumphantly butt-kick a small army of hateful Roman soldiers. And he's clearly a connoisseur of bad dialogue. At one point, a tubby aristocrat complains, "You dragged me from a perfectly good brothel for this?" At another, Kiefer Sutherland actually unleashes the line "Kill them all!"—and later tops it by addressing an unhelpful woman as "You bitch!" Does it get much better than this?
Well of course it does—Pompeii withers in the long shadows of Gladiator and Spartacus. But—a key point here —it doesn't get much better in February.