Pity Paul W.S. Anderson. He's directed so many awful movies, most of them with "Resident Evil" and "Death Race" in the title, that Sony-Tristar ineptly elected to dump his "Pompeii" in February, to hide it from movie critics until after the last minute.
What Anderson delivers this one time is a genuine spectacle, a gladiator movie with a volcano in the middle of it. "Pompeii" has a first-rate effects team that re-creates the living hell of Pompeii as it is buried under ash, pumice and fire. It has a fight choreographer from "300."
Sure, the acting is flat, the story is corny and the dialogue old school ("Is this the end of the world?"). But the fights are furious. And one hour in, when Mount Vesuvius does what we know it did in 72 A.D., this is about as close to the real deal as we'd ever want to see.
Years before that eruption, young Milo survives the massacre of his British Isles family at the hands of the Romans. He's sold into slavery and grows up to become "The Celt" -- able to cut up guys literally twice his size. The Celt (Kit Harington) is shipped off to Pompeii to fight in the arena and become smitten with a young noblewoman, Cassia (Emily Browning). Her parents (Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) would never approve. But since she's being pursued by the evil Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), maybe Milo has a shot.
Jean Frenette's fights, hurling Harington against the charming hulk Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, are first-rate. And Sutherland makes a perfectly venal villain.
"Pompeii" isn't anybody's idea of high art or flawless history. It's too long, there are few light touches and the leads don't have enough moments to set off sparks that aren't volcanic in origin. But it has more heart than your average sword-and-sorcery piece, and effects that could have lifted Anderson out of the Z-grade "Resident Evil" sequels he's been churning out since Hollywood gave him his green card.
He could have escaped his past, if only his studio had let him.
PLOT A young warrior has to fight his battles in the arena and among the ashes in Pompeii.
CAST Kit Harington, Kiefer Sutherland, Emily Browning
BOTTOM LINE At its best when the body blows and the lava are flowing.