Our boy has finally found his voice. For all of us super-patient fans of action auteur Paul W.S. Anderson (not the guy who made frogs rain on the San Fernando Valley in Magnolia — the other Paul Anderson) will experience a long-delayed sense of triumph upon watching Pompeii. Who knew the director of the dazzling yet forgettable Resident Evil series and the cartoonishly over-complicated (read: stupid, failed) Three Musketeers reboot was destined to come of age with sword-and-sandal fireworks? It wasn’t obvious, but Pompeii works because Anderson abandons all hope of rising above the material. Except for a few nods to existential questioning at the beginning and end of this film, the spectacle you want is the spectacle you get.
Anderson doesn’t gum up the works with anachronistic technologies either; his only lapse from purism here is the understandable sin of hybridizing a lot of B-movie material into one junk blockbuster. This film combines Gladiator and Conan the Barbarian with just a smidge of classic chariot opera, à la the Sophia Loren cauldron-boiler The Fall of the Roman Empire. But the plot’s main thrust, so to speak, is rocking a costume drama into a disaster film. Sure, volcanic money shots consume the last 20 minutes, but it’s hubris versus ecological disaster; it’s not even really escapist.
But the main reason to see Pompeii is Emily Browning, whose soulful slow burn has elevated a number of pulpy yet artsy pretension films, from Sucker Punch to Sleeping Beauty. A young Australian of mesmerizing features, she also manages to dignify sordid proceedings with practiced grace here, playing against a smarmy Kiefer Sutherland as a corrupt Roman senator. It’s a villa full of bad acting that only Browning’s presence can save. The rest of it is just CGI glory. Outer-space debris, tsunamis, and walking dead may try to give pleasurable divine-retribution thrills, but nothing delivers brimstone like volcanoes, and this one is a totally classic disaster.