It's not exactly intuitive, but . . . we should maybe try giving Paul W. S. Anderson a little bit of credit.
The man directed three of the Resident Evil movies, but wrote all five; his movies are considered at best guilty pleasures, like Valentine's Day but for man-children who just want to watch things explode. Critics refer to him as an auteur using only the most sarcastic of air quotes.
And it's really easy to write off his movies with a dismissive hand wave as "low-brow time wasters," to say that his visual distractions are pretty but not even mentionable in the same sentence as "art." But I think that'd be unfair—and worse, it'd change the way we have to talk about other movies we like.
Make no mistake, though—Pompeii is not, in the common sense of the word, a "good" movie. The film stars Kit Harrington as the Celt, whose family was wiped out by a Roman battalion when he was a child. Subsequently forced into slavery as a gladiator, the Celt is brought out to Pompeii, where (very conveniently) the same Roman legion commander (a hilariously over-the-top Kiefer Sutherland) who slaughtered his family is paying a visit. The Celt also manages to wiggle his way into a romantic subplot with the daughter of a local businessman, played by Emily Browning (the daughter—not the local businessman).
And while all of this is going on, the volcano rumbles. Long panning shots of scenic volcanic vistas take up a significant portion of the first two acts' running times, and communicate only one thing: it is going to go down—hardcore.
However, the movie takes its sweet, sweet time getting there. Which is unfortunate, because it could have been much better at uniting form and content. All during the first and second act, characters discuss their imminent deaths (they're gladiators, remember?), the nature of fate, what the gods want from them—all of which would make for a much more thematically resonant film.
Unfortunately, the script can't pull it off. The actors are at least technically adequate, and some—like Sutherland or the fantastic Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje—are actually enjoyable to watch. But it's only the minor characters of the movie that are allowed any fun—Browning and Harrington are a strict no-frills deadly self-serious pairing, and neither of them are able to rise above their roles as Generic White Hero and Generic White Lady. The lines are too stale. The pairing is unbelievable, the subplots forced, the chemistry between the leads profoundly inert. One can only take so much smoldering before enough is enough.
Does it sound like I didn't enjoy the movie? Because, weirdly enough, I did. The fascinating thing about this film, and about Paul W.S. Anderson in general, is that he can turn what seems like an absolute train wreck—or worse, a borefest—into a mostly-mitigated train wreck, or a mostly-not-borefest.
So as you watch you realize that yes, anything good in Pompeii is just taken and sanitized from Gladiator—but that doesn't mean it isn't exciting in the moment. And Anderson's lone strength is cultivating that kind of base-level "ergh" feeling during action scenes, a tension that's not unlike watching a good heist movie. Oh, of course they're going to get away with it—but how? What will they lose? Sure, Harrington's character is going to be the coolest, meanest, hind-quarters-kickingest person on the field. But how is it going to happen? It makes for welcome big-screen antics that likely wouldn't scale down well on DVD.