“Pompeii” has a killer ending. Billowing clouds of ash swallow the ancient Roman town and fireballs rain down from above; whole city blocks slide into the sea and a tsunami tears through the streets, leveling everything in its path. When Mount Vesuvius erupts — feel free to direct spoiler complaints to Pliny the Younger — the movie is completely absorbing. You just have to sit through more than an hour of derivative plot and tired dialogue to get there.
The similarities between “Gladiator” and “Pompeii” are hard to overstate. In both cases you have a warrior who’s enslaved after his family is murdered. In both cases he turns out to have an exceptional talent for killing people, he befriends an African gladiator and he falls in love with a woman leagues above his social standing.
But only in “Pompeii” does the protagonist talk to horses. Milo (Kit Harington from “Game of Thrones”) is the last member of a Celtic tribe of equestrians who are massacred by Roman soldiers led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his right-hand man, Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Milo manages to escape his parents’ fate at age 6, but he’s scooped up and enslaved and, years later, becomes a killing machine who can enter an arena unarmed and take out three sword-wielding opponents. Milo could be a star if he weren’t stuck in provincial Londinium.
And so he’s sent to Pompeii. Along the way he meets Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a powerful politician, and notices that the two people he’d most like to kill — Corvus and Proculus — also happen to be in town. To make matters worse, Corvus has his eye on Cassia. Most of the movie is taken up by scene after scene of gladiatorial games, but when Milo isn’t fighting, he’s sharing passionate looks with Cassia and steely glares with Corvus.
None of this really matters once the ground begins to shake and Vesuvius wakes from its slumber. Then the movie transitions from a “Gladiator” clone to a less successful Roland Emmerich catastrophe pic. Say what you will about the man behind “White House Down” and “Independence Day,” but the character developments in those movies look pretty good compared with the scant dialogue and simplistic personalities in Milo’s world.
That being said, “Pompeii” does Emmerich one better in the special effects department. Paul W.S. Anderson, best known for the “Resident Evil” franchise and 2011’s “The Three Musketeers,” creates harrowing simulations of the disaster. It’s enough to make you want him to ditch the story altogether, because as soon as we’re back on the ground with Corvus in a chariot chased by Milo, some of the images are so clearly computer-generated that the drama drains right out of the moment.
Harington’s star is on the rise. He’ll star opposite Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in the upcoming film “The Seventh Son,” and he’s signed on for the movie adaptation of the popular British television series “Spooks.” Yet his first starring role doesn’t showcase what he can do from an acting standpoint. Harington transformed his body for the role, but here’s the real disaster: His startlingly defined six-pack abs are the most memorable part of his character.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content. 105 minutes.