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'Pompeii' review: Epic fail

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

12:00 AM CST, February 20, 2014

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*1/2 (out of four)

Thanks to author Pliny the Younger, there actually exists a first-hand account of Mount Vesuvius’ catastrophic, Pompeii-destroying eruption in A.D. 79. Because it comes from the director of “Resident Evil” and shouldn’t be a top priority for people who care about “facts,” “Pompeii” opens not by citing a vivid, haunting description, but with Pliny noting audible shrieks and shouts during the mayhem. Since we otherwise would’ve assumed people would treat deadly, flying boulders of fire with a whisper and a shrug.

Then the film captures a specific event in world history by fashioning it into a generic, revenge-focused blend of “Gladiator” and “Titanic.” Mistakenly thinking only his muscles need to deliver some muscle, a dull Kit Harington (“Game of Thrones”) plays a man who as a child witnessed his parents’ slaughter as Romans razed his entire Celtic village. Now people know him only as Celt, a surprise since this warrior/slave so clearly wants people to call him Abs McGee.

A horse whisperer with impressively well-kept facial hair, Celt catches the eye of Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of official Pompeii fundraising chair Severus (Jared Harris of “Mad Men”). This bugs Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, not remotely intimidating), a big fan of shouting, “Kill them! Kill them all!” as he totally saw her first. Sadly, among these traditional names there’s no one called Tedious, who would best understand the DOA drama of all this petty jealousy and puppy love.

There’s also no continuity in the accents or anything but English spoken, which seems about as precise as shooting much of the film in Toronto. The bloodless sword fights, mostly of the clang-grunt-slash variety, are blandly staged and terribly shot. Half the time you can’t see what’s going on, and the other half you wish you couldn’t. Every so often we see bubbling lava or hear the mountain rumbling—just in case anyone wonders whether the thing will actually explode.

A mind-blowing finale might have redeemed all that (speaking of “Titanic”), but the briefly impressive main event in “Pompeii” mostly inspires, “Wow, that really looks like special effects.” And while I realize “Those who are about to die salute you” (also incorporated in “Gladiator”) comes from a real Latin phrase, “Pompeii” tweaking it to, “For those of us about to die, we salute you!” just reminded me of “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” a classic by the international conquerors of ACus/DCus.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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