The one overwhelmingly positive thing I can say about the latest disaster film POMPEII is that the volcano eruption sequence is spectacular. Does anything else really matter to you? If so, you're going to likely be hating life and wishing for death by ash and fiery magma by the end of this film, which fancies itself the imperfect hybrid rip-off of GLADIATOR and TITANIC. We have the lowly slave Milo (Kit Harington, Jon Snow in "Games of Thrones") whose parents were slaughtered when he was a child in a battle waged by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, clearly believing he's auditioning for Loki's understudy in the next THOR movie). He's spent his life becoming the perfect gladiator, with revenge in his heart.
On the road to a big tournament in Pompeii, Milo first lays eyes on Cassia (Emily Browning, from SUCKER PUNCH), the untouchable daughter of upper-class citizens Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), who is returning after a year in Rome with her lady servant Ariadne (Jessica Lucas, from the EVIL DEAD remake). Cassia left Rome because she was relentlessly pursued by the creepy Corvus, who is in fact on his way to Pompeii to listen to plans from her father on improving the city with the emperor's investment. But Corvus is such a scumbag, he not only threatens to not recommend that the emperor fund these infrastructure upgrades if Cassia won't marry him, but tell the emperor that the family spoke ill of him, thus assuring their execution.
For reasons that are never quite clear on and seem utterly ridiculous, after their brief meeting, the love spark catches fire between Milo and Cassia, much to everyone's disgust (including mine—Milo is a filthy creature). But we all know what happens when you try to keep two hot actors apart. Not surprisingly, the love story aspect of Pompeii feels like the worst kind of cliche-loaded filler, a fact not helped by the fact that director Paul W.S. Anderson (helmer on many of the RESIDENT EVIL films, DEATH RACE, and the most recent attempt at THE THREE MUSKETEERS) has zero knowledge of how filmed romance works.
The more interesting chemistry happens between Milo and a fellow gladiator, the seasoned champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who recently played Kurse in THOR: THE DARK WORLD). He has been told that his battle with Milo will be the one that gets him enough wins to become a free man, a boldface lie that he clings to until Milo makes him realize the Romans will either kill him or keep him fighting until he dies. The two men form a bond that's actually based on their shared arena experience, while Milo and Cassia stare at each other blankly as they talk about horses.
The threat of Mt. Vesuvius erupting is a big part of POMPEII, which may seem like a foregone conclusion, but in fact it's really only a factor for the audience; the citizens of this city seem to be oblivious to the danger until it's too late. Puffs of smoke emerge from the ground, small chunks of land fall into the sea without anyone noticing, and tremors shake the land, which people somehow convince themselves is the gods commenting on life in what is essentially a seaside vacation town. It literally takes the buildings around them crashing down on their collective heads for them to gather an inkling that something might be wrong.
The unintentional laugh factor on POMPEII might be one of the biggest of any film this scale. Whether it's Sutherland's hilarious scene chewing or the cringe-worthy attempts at touchy-feely material or how our heroes seem to avoid all of the perils of being in the middle of a fucking volcano eruption but keep running into their enemies without fail is all just a bit too much to handle. I get that "so bad it's good" exists; I rarely subscribe to that categorization, but I acknowledge that many live by it. But POMPEII is not that; it's terrible as a narrative, as an experience of what it must have been like for the people that went through it, as a love story, and as a vehicle for living, breathing characters. It exists solely as a pain-by-numbers actioner with flashy special effects and one-dimensional characters that are there to either get wiped out or to annoy us with their attempts at heartfelt drama. I'll give it points for spectacle, but the rest is hollow, steamy garbage.