In this pre-Oscar release period when movie studios find it a perfect time to purge their catalogs of D-grade movies, its best to set the bar pretty low, and my expectations for the new movie "Pompeii" were about as ash deep as the once ancient Roman city on which the story is very loosely based.
Set in the days just prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that would destroy the city, this "Gladiator"-meets-"Titanic" mash-up pits a Celtic slave-turned-sword-fighting warrior named Milo in a fight for his life while falling for an upwardly mobile daughter, Cassia, of one of Pompeii's most prominent families. Their doomed romance not only has to survive an evil Roman senator (Corvus) but a shaky city falling apart under a deluge of molten rock, earthquakes and a tsunami.
The film opens with Milo as a boy in a Celtic clan known for their skills with horses who are massacred by the Romans. Milo witnesses the death of his mother at the hands of Corvus (played by Keifer Sutherland, who relishes this opportunity to scream inane dialogue, in contrast to the forced whispers of Jack Bauer in "24"). From child to wronged adult, Milo ("Game of Thrones'" Kit Harrington) is buff and has transformed into a hero Gladiator, who is taken to Pompeii to wow the bloodthirsty crowds as he fights to the death for a little afternoon entertainment, but not before he crosses paths with a couple of other familiar faces from television (for those who are counting) including "Mad Men"'s Jared Harris (playing an ambitious Roman business man and father to Cassia) and fellow Gladiator, Atticus (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the mysterious Mr. Eko from "Lost"), who becomes more friend than foe.
But all that is just a preamble as the volcano starts to puff smoke and rumble while the city's decadent inhabitants are oblivious to nature's impending wrath. The filmmakers claim they did their historic research, recreating Pompeii (down to handmade, matching cobblestones and market stalls inspired by a bas-relief of the period) and the events of that fateful day in 79 AD (pyroclastic surges, 21-mile-high columns of ashes, as documented by historian Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the event from afar, and is quoted in the beginning of the film).
While hardly a serious history lesson, this is where the real fun of the movie begins. Helmed by "Resident Evil" vet Paul W.S. Anderson, "Pompeii" turns out to be quite a wild ride with an epic historic disaster just ripe for fancy state-of-the-art 3D visual effects with shooting fireballs, raining ash and crumbling edifices.
Harrington, no stranger to horsemanship and swords, also proves he can easily magnify his small screen charm as "Thrones'" Jon Snow to leading man status, as he plays a mix of Russell Crowe in the gladiator ring — baby-faced tussled hair — and doting dashing young Leonardo Di Caprio as the romantic among the ruins opposite Cassia (played by Australian actress Emily Browning from "Sucker Punch").
If you have checked off all your Oscar watching this week, and you can forgive the cheesy plot line, "Pompeii" is not a bad epic apocalyptic sword-and-sandal distraction.
KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee. Follow her on Twitter: @KatherineTulich.