Did you like the Starz TV series “Spartacus?” If so, you’ll probably enjoy a matinee of “Pompeii,” which is like the PG-13 Cliff’s Notes version of “Spartacus,” plus millions of dollars of CGI exploding-volcano effects at the end.
More than most dramatizations of well-known events, “Pompeii” does not even briefly try to pretend that everyone in the audience doesn’t know how the story will end. You know the old joke about how someone in line to see “Titanic” says “the boat sinks,” and is immediately berated by historically illiterate movie patrons for “spoiling” the story? “Pompeii” basically makes that joke during its own opening credits.
Yeah, so there’s this volcano, and a pretty nifty CGI Roman city right next to it, filled with 20,000 little CGI people and maybe five actors you’ll recognize, and right in the middle of a cookie-cutter gladiator revenge plot – if Conan the Barbarian had been captured by the Romans as a child, growing into the guy who plays Jon Snow on “Game of Thrones,” this would be his story – Mount Vesuvius goes kablooey, raining down a shower of fiery meteors that target unpleasant major characters like cruise missiles. The most unintentionally funny moment in the movie comes when all the characters look up from the mid-budget remake of “Gladiator” they thought they were involved in, right in the middle of a big arena swordfight, to see the sky boiling with special effects. They’ve all got the Roman equivalent of “WTF?” dancing in their eyes.
There’s a lot more of the “barbarian kid grows into invincible gladiator and gets unlikely shot at avenging himself upon the exact two guys who slaughtered his family” plot than you might expect. It’s reasonably well done, even if nobody except Sasha Roiz from “Grimm” looks remotely like a Roman. (He gets the Darth Maul evil-butt-kicker part, and acquits himself well.) Sorry, Kit Harrington, but you’re still typecast as Jon Snow – better luck next time. Jared Harris shows up, once again looking like he can’t understand why Hollywood can’t find a better use for him (and it should.)
Faring best in the cast are Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko from “Lost”) and Kiefer Sutherland, who seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously as the noble gladiator champion and scuzzball Roman senator, respectively. It’s a pity they don’t get more scenes together, but Mr. Eko clearly knows that Evil Roman Jack Bauer is part of somebody else’s fate. This is the kind of movie where supporting characters jolly well know they’re supporting characters.
It’s pretty neat when the volcano blows, and “Pompeii” becomes the 21st-century CGI version of an Irwin Allen disaster picture, giving us a nicely escalating sense of doom as Mount Vesuvius grows increasingly vexed that everyone isn’t dead yet, and redoubles its efforts. It’s too bad the script isn’t smarter – there seem to be moments in that standard-issue revenge plot when the characters could have dropped some really memorable lines, and everyone in the cast appears game to give it a shot.
The volcano of “300: Rise of an Empire” will soon blow and wipe “Pompeii” out of theaters, but it’s a pleasant diversion until the slow-mo Spartans show up. By the time I left the theater, I was feeling the urge to pop in my “Spartacus” DVDs and watch this story play out at full length without the volcano, but with its signature combination of wit, cable-TV excess, insane gore, crazy over-the-top fights, John Hannah blowing his stack with hilariously profane tirades, and above all Andy Whitfield, a true gladiator.