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PAUL W.S. ANDERSON'S POMPEII

year: 2014 rating: ***
It seems like forever since Kiefer Sutherland played a jerk, something he did quite well before beating time on a television series – and right off the bat he’s the really horrible Roman who kills our future hero’s family… But the kid is much too young to do anything about it, for now…

If this sounds like the opening of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, within the next half hour POMPEII becomes more like THE PRINCESS BRIDE and eventually morphs into a GLADIATOR version of TITANIC… And yet with all these influences, it’s still an original and surprisingly worthwhile motion picture that resembles an epic but thankfully keeps focused on a basic storyline.

Milo, played by Kit Harrington, is the grownup version of that unlucky little boy, and as a slave he’s destined for something much better than trudging around in chains. As fate would have it, after being able to mentally bond with a dying horse, he catches the interest of a beautiful young lady, Cassia.

In the love-interest role, full-lipped Emily Browning is lovely, chaste, and, like most sheltered ingĂ©nues, downright mopey… but not on an annoying level. Her father has a connection with a Roman ruler, Sutherland’s evil Corvus, visiting Pompeii for a gladiator match the following afternoon. And he really wants Buttercup’s… or rather, Cassia’s reluctant hand in a forced marriage.

Meanwhile, in a murky dungeon beneath the coliseum, a battle champion named Atticus, played by a tough, slowburn Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (try reading that five times fast), is set for his final bow… so he’s promised… before being set free. And that death match will be against the newly captive Milo, who might be his only equal: not in strength but cunning agile. 

Beyond the unrequited romance of Milo and Cassia, the real dynamic occurs between these two fighters. With all the threats and bravado, and the eventual kinship, you’ll be anticipating this matchup... only there’s a problem… make that a really big problem in the form of a rumbling volcano, shadowing the entire region, threatening to turn this gladiator flick into a bonafide disaster film.

Thankfully there is one chaotic coliseum battle before the historic volcano goes completely haywire. But how each character remains fighting for their lives while still viciously pitted against each other (ala TITANIC) – even when flaming lava rocks are plummeting to the earth – keeps the story character-driven, trumping the desperately futile situation…

Too bad there weren't more scenes, as Bob Dylan once wrote, “spent inside the coliseum, dodging lions and wasting time.” Because director Paul W.S. Anderson created a pretty neat stage only to let it melt away during most of the second half. And while it really would have been terrific to see the two unlikely friends fight each other… just to see who’d win.... eventually there’s enough closure for every character to make POMPEII a satisfying action-packed melodrama.
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