Spoiler alert: the volcano erupts and everybody dies.
Such is "Pompeii", the cheesy, entertaining 3D epic that chronicles the last days of that Roman city by recycling plot memes from numerous movies and television shows. There are shades of "Titanic" in its love plot, "Gladiator" in the arena scenes, beefcake by way of television’s "Spartacus," even a bit of "The Horse Whisperer" in the way that its hunky hero, Milo (Kit Harington), tames a freaked out horse and wins the heart of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the Pompeii’s wealthiest merchant.
Milo is also known as The Celt -- a lean, mean killing machine whose prowess in the arena gets him sent from the backwater of drab Londinium to the sunny big time of Pompeii. He got that name because he was raised by Celtic tribes after his family (and tribe) were wiped out by the Romans as they expanded their empire. As a boy Milo watched his parents die at the hands of the nasty general Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his equally reprehensible second-in-command Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Years later he sees Proculus in Pompeii and perceives it as a sign that his revenge of his family’s death is at hand. He probably should be paying more attention to the string of earthquakes that have been rocking the city.
Milo, played by Harington from "Game of Thrones," is a wiry hunk with steely abs that may or may not have been perfected by CGI. He also has dreamy brown eyes and curly dark hair that make you think that perhaps he grew up in Pompeii, not far away Britain. Whatever. He moves with requisite speed, especially in a prolonged and well-executed arena fight that makes up one of the film’s showy show pieces, and has the soulful look of a wrong man seeking revenge, which is pretty much all that is asked of Harington as an actor.
Assisting him in the arena is Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a hulking gladiator who, at first, is to fight Milo in a death-match. Those plans are thwarted when Corvus, now a Roman senator with lecherous eye for Cassia, attempts to have both gladiators killed in an arena bloodbath that would celebrate the Romans victory over the Celts. The gladiators win, but their victory is short-lived because that pesky volcano Vesuvius explodes, sending fireballs into Pompeii and setting of a series of earthquakes that cause the arena to collapse.
The eruption couldn’t come sooner because up to that point, "Pompeii" resembles the pilot to a bad cable series. Its characters barely register beyond archetypes; its dialogue dumbed down to the lowest common denominator (i.e., the international film market); and its acting ranges from earnest (Harrington and Browning) to campy (Sutherland). With a phony British accent and gleefully nasty demeanor, Sutherland breathes life into yet another one of the film’s stereotypes. He’s one-note, but entertaining.
The script (by Janet Scott and Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson) is little more than an excuse for the extended volcanic eruption that takes up the film’s last act. Once Vesuvius explodes, the film becomes an endless display of falling columns, crowd-swallowing sinkholes and fireballs that streak across the screen like scud missiles. There’s a tsunami (most effectively rendered) that has hundreds of extras running for their lives and huge plumes of black dust that turn day-to-night and give the final kiss of death for the populous.
As directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, "Pompeii" trades any attempt at deep characterization or serious attempt to render history for plenty of cheap 3D thrills. The result turns out not to be half-bad in a kitschy, B-movie way. The quick pacing, especially during the arena scenes, keeps the movie from being too dull; the bad dialogue is entertaining if not taken too seriously; the special effects are slickly rendered (look out for that falling debris!) and there’s requisite eye candy amongst the gladiators, especially with Harington and Akinnuoye-Agbaje. By its ash-covered finale, "Pompeii" proves to be a fun guilty pleasure. And, best of all, it leaves no room for a sequel.