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 many ways Bullet to the Head is as ludicrous as you would expect. A heavily tattooed Sylvester Stallone and Conan beefcake Jason Momoa arm themselves with axes for a fight. Christian Slater's sleazy lawyer character hosts a giant sexy party in his Garden District mansion complete with nude ladies doing the tango and Slater himself wearing a fox mask that's a little too on the nose. There's a corrupt real estate baron from Africa played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje who uses not one but two canes and plans to demolish the "ghetto housing projects" in New Orleans to build sweet new condos or whatever.
And all of the women that appear in the film — all of them that have any lines and plenty that don't say a word — show their breasts at one time or another evenSarah Shahi playing Stallone's daughter Lisa. Stallone's character is nicknamed Jimmy Bobo and he brings his own bottle of bourbon with him when he goes to bars — Bulleit of course.
However unlike more recent action films like Jack Reacher or Stallone's endless Expendables Bullet to the Head is a pleasing solid genre flick. Part of the appeal along with the impressive fight scenes and laughably elaborate set-ups is that the film knows when it's being silly. "What are we f**king Vikings?" Stallone bellows right before he and Momoa come to blows. Slater is a perfectly ratty little lawyer who when tied to a chair and being threatened with bodily harm sneers "There's nothing you can do to men that I haven't done to myself for fun!"
Stallone gets the best lines usually tossed-off phrases like suggesting someone's bullet wounds could be fixed up with "a band-aid and a blow pop " but he's also saddled with some of the worst. His interactions with his reluctant partner a handsome cop named Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) slow the movie down to a glacier's pace. One might imagine that director Walter Hill is trying to recall the dicey racial tension in the 48 Hrs. movies between Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte but it doesn't translate here at all. Jimmy Bobo's ribbing of Taylor isn't just unfunny it's boring. There's nothing particularly clever about any of the written jokes about tea leaves Confucius samurai and so forth; while Kang's character is supposed to be annoyed by this "banter " it looks like Kang himself isn't all that thrilled.
Bullet to the Head is no masterpiece let's be clear. Plunking down Stallone et al. in New Orleans creates a cognitive dissonance that's laughable at best. Momoa who plays a vicious mercenary looks hilariously out of place in the redneck bar we first see him in; he's really born to play characters like Khal Drago in Game of Thrones where he just has to ride a horse and look like a dangerous-but-sexy warrior. People seem impossible to kill; often it takes you know a bullet to the head to finally keep 'em down. And that daughter of Jimmy's Sarah? She is a tattoo artist with one year of medical school under her belt so she's pretty swell when it comes to basic medical procedures. Like bullet removal.
But let's go back to all those boobies. This is an R-rated movie with plenty of violence and drugs and nudity and that is fine by me. I do not mind looking at good-looking naked people not in the least. When the first character we meet is a prostitute who is merely referred to as a hooker for a good chunk of the movie and that's really one of the only female characters we meet that's a problem. When Lisa's mom is referred to as a dead hooker junky that's a trend.
And when Lisa is lounging in the bathtub and Taylor breaks into her house for well whatever reason he and Jimmy came up with and she runs into him in her living room when she's wearing nothing but a towel and we can see her butt and breasts it makes me scratch my head a little.
Look this is an action movie and one based on a comic book to boot so I'm not expecting Tennessee Williams here but give me a break.
There were probably some women at the Garden District party who were clothed but the great majority of women in the movie are naked and/or referred to as totally disposable which is a frankly sickening trend in an otherwise enjoyable movie. It would have been better to leave all of the female characters on the cutting room floor and be done with it than treat them with such matter-of-fact contempt.
Sadly this gross undercurrent knocks my original star rating down a half.
Bullet to the Head is not a summer blockbuster but it's better than the typical January dregs. Spring can't come soon enough.