Part sword-and-sandal spectacle, part disaster epic, "Pompeii" accomplishes its ambitious agenda to largely engrossing effect. Sure, it's not the brainiest of outings, but director Paul W.S. Anderson (the man behind four of the "Resident Evil" films) keeps the action apace and the lava a-flowing with workmanlike energy and sufficient visual dazzle.
Set in AD 79, immediately before and during the cataclysmic eruption of southern Italy's Mt. Vesuvius, the script by Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson places a star-crossed romance at the center of one of the ancient world's most legendary calamities. And, though a "Titanic"-like fate may await the story's would-be lovers — enslaved gladiator Milo (Kit Harington of "Game of Thrones") and young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning) — their forbidden pairing gives this often brutal picture a necessary bit of heart.
The first half of the film finds the heroic Milo and his fellow slave fighters, including reigning champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), descending upon the then-coastal resort city of Pompeii (convincingly re-created at a Toronto studio) for some big-time arena battles.
Meanwhile, ruthless Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) arrives to flex some political muscle as well as ensnare Cassia in marriage. (There's a vaguely creepy back story between them; there's also bad history between Corvus and Milo.) Cassia's wealthy parents (Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss) will also prove pawns in Corvus' dastardly plans.
But things really explode after ominous volcanic rumblings turn into Vesuvius' colossal detonation, which notoriously annihilated a city and its people, though much was weirdly preserved by molten rock and ash. The massive, CGI-enhanced destruction, augmented by the effects of an attendant earthquake and tsunami, is tense, eye-popping and occasionally riveting. The 3-D here, though not essential, is put to decent use during the movie's many hellish moments.
Although the cast, especially the pumped-up Harington and the lovely Browning, is at best serviceable and the dialogue frequently too basic, "Pompeii" succeeds as escapist entertainment.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Playing: In general release.