For those of us for whom the word Pompeii instantly conjures up visions of Frankie Howerd, it’s good to find plenty of laughs in director Paul WS Anderson’s historical epic – even if none of them are laughs Anderson actually intended.
But in fairness, Anderson does actually have the last laugh as a film which seems so naff and half-baked for so long, somehow manages to turn up the heat for a reasonably-gripping finale.
It’s certainly not a great film, but it’s far from the nightmare it threatened with its awful, leaden dialogue delivered with all the feel of a low-brow made-for-TV movie. For the most part there’s nothing remotely epic about Anderson’s reimagining of the build-up to Mount Vesuvius’ big moment. With a wronged and vengeful slave forced into gladiatorial combat and with a villainous Roman calling all the shots, the first hour-and-a-half seems like a poor man’s Gladiator, with added lava interest. Increasing the naffness is the fact that most of the big panoramas look and feel like something off a computer screen, which is presumably what they are. Thank heavens for Kiefer Sutherland’s extraordinary accent as corrupt Roman Senator Corvus. It’s a rich comic seam that the film unfailingly and unconsciously exploits.
But somehow it sucks you in. Or maybe you just get used to it. Either way, you find yourself rooting for the young would-be lovers – muscular Milo (Kit Harington) and high-born Cassia (Emily Browning – as they try to get their act together against pointless odds. If the Romans don’t get them, the volcano certainly will.
Milo might be good at duffing up his enemies in the arena, but if he ever escapes, it really will be out of the frying pan into the fire, and while the earth might move for the lovers, their tragedy is that it’s also moving for everyone else... though probably not for the audience. Even so, in its naff way, Pompeii remains surprisingly watchable.