TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
An hour and change into Pompeii, there's a volcano. You'd think there might have been a volcano throughout — you'd think that the folks inhabiting the ill-fated Italian village would have been dealing with the infamous volcano for the full 110 minutes. After all, volcano movies have worked before. Volcano, for instance. And the other one. But for some reason, Pompeii feels the need to stuff its first three quarters with coliseum battles, Ancient Rome politics, unlikely friendships, and a love story. But we don’t care. We can't care. None of it warrants our care. Where the hell is the volcano, already?
To answer that: it's off to the side — rumbling. Smoking. Occasionally spiking the neighboring community with geological fissures or architectural misgivings. Pretty much executing every trick picked up in Ominous Foreshadowing 101, but never joining the story. Not until Paul W.S. Anderson shouts, "Last call," hitting us with a final 20-odd minutes of unmitigated disaster (in a good way). If you've managed to maintain a waking pulse throughout the lecture in sawdust that is Pompeii's story, then you might actually have a good time with the closing sequence. It has everything you’d expect — everything you had been expecting! — and delivers it with gusto. Torpedoes of smoke running hordes of idiot villagers out of their homes and toward whatever safety the notion of forward has to offer. Long undeveloped characters rising to the occasion to rescue hapless princesses who thought it might be a good idea to set their vacation homes at the foot of a lava-spewing mountain. The whole ordeal is actually a lot of laughs. But it amounts to a dessert just barely worth the tasteless dinner we had to force down to get there.
TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
To get through the bulk of Pompeii, we recommend focusing all your attentions away from the effectively bland slave/gladiator/hero Kit Harington — sorry, Jon Snow (he's actually called a bastard at one point) — and onto his partner in crime: a scowling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — sorry, Mr. Eko (he and Snow actually trade valedictions by saying "I'll see you at another time, brother" at one point) — who warms up to his fellow prize fighter during their shared time in the klink, and delivers his moronic material with a sprinkle of flair. Keeping the working man down is Kiefer Sutherland — sorry, Jack Bauer — as an ostentatious Roman senator, doling out vainglory in Basil Fawlty-sized portions. When he's not spitting scowls at peasants, ol' JB is undermining the efforts of an earnest local governor Jared Harris — sorry, Lane Pryce (he actually calls someone a mad man at one point) — and his wife Carrie-Anne Moss — sorry, Katherine O'Connell from Vegas (joking! Trinity) — and finagling the douchiest marriage proposal ever toward their daughter Emily Browning — sorry, but I have no idea what she's from.
But questionable television references and some enjoyably daft performances by Eko and Jack can't really make up for the heft of mindless dullness that Pompeii passes off as its narrative... until the big showstopper.
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In truth, the last sequence is a gem. It's fun, inviting, and energizing, and might even call into question the possibility that Pompeii is all about how futile life, love, friendship, politics, and pride are when even the most egregiously complicated of plots can be taken out in the end by a sudden volcanic eruption. But you have to wade through that egregious complication to get there, and you shouldn't expect to have too much of a good time doing so.
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In February 2001 a highly regarded long-serving FBI agent was arrested for selling U.S. secrets to Russia over a period of 15 years; Breach tells his story as well as that of the man who spied on him. Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) the now infamous treasonist led a Jekyll-and-Hide lifestyle which the FBI would use to ultimately build up a case and arrest him. But first they needed a young hungry sly and innocent-seeming up-and-comer to gain Hanssen’s trust enough to just barely cause him to let his guard down. That’s where Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) comes in. O’Neill is just what his boss (Laura Linney) had in mind and she quickly clues him in: This is the “worst breach in U.S. history ” with Hanssen being responsible for countless American deaths and dollars and Hanssen’s a sexual deviant. But after spending long days by the agent’s side O’Neill sees nothing but a misunderstood man and wants to call off the mission. However after some more inside info from his boss and manifestations from Hanssen himself O’Neill is onto the cause even if it means putting his life at risk. Playing real-life people is much different from playing fictional characters because real people are extremely complex—neither exclusively good nor as in this case exclusively bad. That’s why veteran actor Cooper’s performance is so riveting and his acting so widely lauded: He lends so much humanity to a character he could’ve portrayed as a true villain. In fact his ability to humanize each of his characters—not only because he looks like an Everyman—is what makes him one of the best most credible actors of today. Whereas we’re supposed to object to Cooper from the moment he opens his mouth Phillippe is not supposed to be disliked. It’s hard not to the way he almost struts his attitude but the Crash star and former Mr. Reese Witherspoon turns in one of his better performances. The real O’Neill might not have looked like a male model but he must’ve been deeply conflicted and consumed by his mission and Phillippe conveys that much. However he still seems unable to hit some high notes. And Linney (Exorcism of Emily Rose) in a limited role adds sheer class and professionalism as is her career trademark. Writer/director Billy Ray will seemingly accept writing gigs for just about any genre (Hart's War Flightplan Suspect Zero) but he apparently has his heart set on nonfiction when it comes to directing. His rookie effort the ripped-from-the-headlines Shattered Glass evoked superb fly-on-the-wall tension not unlike Breach. Which isn’t to compare either movie to a documentary but both are executed rather organically and it speaks volumes about a director’s talent when he or she can pinpoint and articulate the intrigue of a true story as opposed to contriving a gimmick (i.e. camerawork or special effects) from a fictitious story to arouse viewers’ interest. Ray clearly has no interest in tricking viewers at all and yet Breach remains engrossing throughout. It’s the ultimate testament to the success of his no-frills filmmaking. It can be said that neither of the main characters is explored deeply enough but (a) that’s what books are for and (b) such is the constraint of the medium of (taut) film.