I love disaster movies. Weather catastrophes, geological upheavals or cosmic threats it doesn’t matter I love them all. Now throw that all into a Sword & Sandal flick and you’ve almost no chance of disappointing me. So it would seem that director Paul W.S. Anderson made a film with just me in mind. So how did it fair?
I enjoyed the hell out of this movie! Now does that mean I think it’s a good movie? That’s a tougher question as it doesn’t have an ounce of originality in its pretty little head as it basically places Ridley Scott’s Gladiator at the feet of Dante’s Peak with a couple of borrowed elements from Titanic. The film is populated with stock characters you’ve seen a dozen times which saves Paul W.S. Anderson from not having to really explain anybody’s motivation and thus get to the disaster that much quicker. Which is what we’re all here to see. Well, maybe a few women are here hankering to see Kit Harrington’s abs, but mostly it’s the carnage.
The movie begins with the Roman army slaughtering a village of Celts who apparently rebelled against the Empire. General Evil (Kiefer Sutherland’s character is actually named Corvus but for the sake of this review he will be henceforth known as Evil) orders all of the Celts killed to set an example to all like-minded people. Somehow a little Celtic boy named Milo is the sole survivor and, after watching his parents brutally killed and his people exterminated, he is captured by a group of slavers.
This little boy skips the Conan the Barbarian “Wheel of Pain” bodybuilding routine and just jumps ahead to the gladiator portion of his life where he is now played by Kit Harrington. To the fans of gladiatorial sports he is simply known as The Celt, he is a badass with a sword and all opponents fall before him like wheat on harvest day. He then gets the Russell Crowe transfer from the sticks to The Show with minimal effort or screen time.
It’s on his way to Pompeii and the big time that he meets the love interest Cassia (Emily Browning), we know she is the girl for him because though she is a citizen of the Roman Empire she hates Rome, and she and her personal slave are besties. Cassia has cut her Rome vacation short due to the unwanted attention of General Evil, who is now Senator Evil.
Cassia’s parents (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss) need serious funds for their planned renovations of Pompeii and Senator Evil offers to be their patron, but of course, he’s got strings attached to this as he later reveals that if Cassia doesn’t marry him he will have her family branded as traitors to the Empire and killed. Basically, Kiefer is playing Snidely Whiplash and the only reason he doesn’t end up tying Cassia to some train tracks is because the world hasn’t gotten around to inventing trains yet.
Meanwhile, Milo finds himself in another scene blatantly ripped off from Gladiator as he and his new best friend and fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaj) must perform in a re-enactment of a Roman victory, and of course, it’s of the genocide of Milo’s people, but surprise surprise it seems ole Milo and Atticus are just too awesome to lose and wipe the floor with their enemies. Who saw that coming?
Historical Note: Gladiatorial games were a business much as sporting events are today, only slightly less homophobic, and as a business having your property fighting to the death every time they step into an arena would be fiscally irresponsible. Less than 10% of fights between gladiators ended in death. This does not count criminals or Christians who would be the ones doing fatal re-enactments of big battles and not the professional gladiators. Having your two best gladiators fight each other to the death would be just plain stupid. But we’re not to simply watch sweaty men fight, we came for some hot volcanic action.
The volcanic eruption kind of interrupts the games and the nasty tantrums of Senator Evil. Now we start getting what we paid our $10 bucks for as the coliseum collapses, lava bombs strike the city, and crowds of people stampede for safety. At some point, Cassia and Milo fell in love (it involved a horse ride, chicks dig horses) so Milo has to rescue her from certain doom, both the doom of an erupting volcano and the continued machinations of Senator Evil who should really be trying to get the hell out of Pompeii and worry about his love life later. But you see he is EVIL!
Disaster Movie Note: Seeing as this story takes place in 79 AD one character is missing and that would be the person, usually the hero, who tries to warn the populace of the danger but is ignored. During this time period, you weren’t going to run into volcanologists unless they were priests worshiping the god Vulcan. So all we get in this film is the Master of the Games warning Jared Harris that the stadium may be structurally unsound after some minor quakes. He is of course ignored.
Paul W.S. Anderson was not content to just give us a rousing pyrokinetic show with lava bombs (Note: There is no evidence that Vesuvius lobbed any such things) but he decided to give us a tsunami as well. The volcano causes the tide to recede and then to rush back in over the city carrying away ships and people in an awesome display of power.
The CGI carnage is rather well done and you can see this is where the budget went, certainly not to the script department, and one cannot but gleefully giggle as you watch Senator Evil in a chariot trying to outrace Milo while the city explodes around them. It’s just gloriously goofy.
So yes, this is not the greatest story ever told, but by Vulcan’s beard, it was fun. Paul W.S. Anderson delivers what he promised and the cast all provide serviceable performances, with the exception of Kiefer Sutherland whose over-the-top performance and the strange British/Hans Gruber accent is more of a marvel than the volcano, and once again love conquerors all…oh…um…well most of the time it does.
So yes, this is not the greatest story ever told, but by Vulcan’s beard it was fun.