When Vesuvius kabooms an hour into Pompeii, it interrupts a perfectly spirited gladiator picture the likes of which Hollywood just doesn't make, a rousing slaves-vs.-Romans close-combat thriller I was in no way ready to see chucked in favor of the usual CGI apocalypse. Kit Harington (Game of Thrones' Jon Snow) stars as Celtic Warrior Whose Name I Forget, an orphaned hunk with abs so sharply defined you could race Matchbox cars through the grooves between them. He's hauled from a bloody-puddle London slave pit to battle in Pompeii's glittering arena, which is the gladiator equivalent of Triple-A ball, just one step down from Rome. Slave Hunk falls for Pompeiian princess Cassia (Emily Browning) and, more promisingly, strikes up a terrifically entertaining friendship with Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion pit-fighter our hero is slated to face in to-the-death combat. Before that can happen, the volcano blows up.Director Paul W.S. Anderson is an impressive crafter of pop-gothic images, and each shot of cataclysmic nonsense flows smoothly into the next, a feat once so fundamental to filmmaking that it still feels absurd to have to praise it. Better still is the combat. Anderson's battles are crisp, brutal, and stirring, and unlike Ridley Scott he doesn't try to shame us for wanting to see gladiators crack each other's skulls. He stages his fights with comic-book zeal rather than puffed-up graphic-novel miserableness. The romance is as fresh as the box of Arm & Hammer in the back of your fridge, and the movie ends on a swooningly poetic lovers' clutch that had my preview audience howling. Laughs are laughs, though, so why knock it?
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Janet Scott Batchler
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Jessica Lucas, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Currie Graham and Joe Pingue