‘Pompeii’ Fizzles, But Is ‘3 Days to Kill’ the Start of the Costner Comeback?

In the months leading up to the release of Titanic, you could sense people rooting for a disaster — not that the boat would sink, but that James Cameron would. Some people wanted a big, gassy mess that made you laugh because the acting was lousy, the effects looked cheap, and the story came straight from the back of a cocktail napkin. What those people really wanted was Pompeii, which is what would happen if a blockbuster ran out of Cameron and had to start using Cecil B. DeMeh.

The movie imagines a resort town in 79 A.D. full of shirtless slaves, gathered to slay each other for the bloodlust of the masses. One is named Milo (Kit Harington), and he’s such a fearsome gladiator that he’s been imported from Britannia. He’s got a face that says “Eric Bana,” a teased, swept-over wet look that says Purple Rain, and a way with horses that says, “Mount me.” He’s a Celt, and some onscreen text tells us they’re stallion people. His whispering attracts a merchant’s daughter, Cassia (Emily Browning), who’s resisting the ooze of a Roman senator who won’t stop getting on everyone’s nerves. Kiefer Sutherland plays the senator in full snivel. When he says “games,” he makes you hear a “y.”

There are roles for Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss as the merchant and his wife. Milo shares a lot of scenes with Atticus, an indestructible fellow slave played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, an actor of imposing stature and comical swagger. Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s approach to this part is smart. It’s: “What wouldn’t Djimon Hounsou do?” It’s been awhile since the movies have had a big black buck role. This guy acts it with a knife and a fork.

Every once in a while, we check in on a groaning volcano, and its bubbling pit. Tellingly, the movie isn’t called Vesuvius. “Pompeii” sounds like a place where soapy, sexy stuff happens all the time — like “Dallas” or “Studio 54.” To that end, Browning often looks like a woman on the brink of an orgasm. It’s as if she’s trying to out-act the volcano. The eruption starts early and lasts most of the movie. (It’s tantric that way.) Occasionally, a rock flies at you in 3-D or a falling pillar makes you jump. It’s the equivalent of discovering that your giant bag of chips is mostly crumbs and air.

No matter how much lava is afoot, there’s always time to impale one more person with a sword. Pompeii does make you wonder about what cataclysms people will be lining up for 2,000 years from now. In the meantime, director Paul W.S. Anderson and the three credited screenwriters don’t know whether we’ve come to laugh, cheer, or cringe at the salad of violence, villainy, and romance. The result is an embarrassed sort of campiness. No vaguely campy blockbuster — even one about a volcano — should leave you feeling this way: burned.

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You’ve seen the ads for 3 Days to Kill, the new Kevin Costner movie in which Costner shoots, high-kicks, and stunt-drives, often with a scarf around his neck (he’s in Paris!), and I know what you’re thinking: Why only three days? Well, that’s more or less the amount of time he’s got until the next installment of How Come People Keep Fucking With Liam Neeson? (commonly known as Non-Stop) opens. 3 Days to Kill was produced and cowritten by Luc Besson, whose cartoonish action-thrillers practically invented Jason Statham and reinvented Neeson. Costner is hoping for the same.

At 59, Costner’s got the next best thing to good acting: great seasoning. His full hair has salt, pepper, and a dash of cumin. And time has kneaded wonderful creases around his eyes. He’s completely, inexorably Kevin Costner, which really means at least something in a movie this disposable. Some Besson films leave your head the minute they enter. This one doesn’t even bother going there. It isn’t enough that Ethan Renner, the CIA agent Costner’s playing, has to race around Paris trying to stop the sale of a dirty bomb. He also has to save his estranged teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) from a sexual assault and then, a scene later, teach her to ride a bike at Sacré Coeur of all places.

He’s got an ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) weighing on his heart, a Malian family legally squatting in his apartment, a sexy CIA handler (Amber Heard) on his back, and cancer all over his brain and lungs. Besson and his cowriter, Adi Hasak, have written this movie so that the possibility exists that Heard is Death, Christmastime is heaven, and the dapper albino whom Ethan is hunting has escaped from a Bond movie.

The director is McG, and his talent for shootouts that empty dance floors and fistfights that demolish supermarkets is a cut above the Pierre Morels and Olivier Megatons of the Besson stable. They’re cool, but McG is crisp. Of course, he seems to be holding his nose through all the maudlin father-daughter and ex-husband/ex-wife stuff, but that occupies only about half the movie. None of it appears to bother Costner. Not even having to roll around sick on the ground three or four times while the camera affixed to his body takes stock of his pain. (It’s the Kevincam!) He might be the only star left in Hollywood who could take a role with this much ludicrous in it and perform the whole thing as though he were simply taking a bath. Neeson would need something true to play. Costner just plays himself.

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If you’re in need of a palate cleanser and happen to be in New York City before the 27th, the second and final week of Film Comment Selects is under way. The programmers have chosen a handful of new and old films, from Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, which works as both a fine television serial and a procedural art-house epic, to Fat Shaker, Mohammad Shirvani’s unclassifiable, possibly allegorical experiment about an obese Iranian father who abuses his deaf son and the woman who tries to intervene.

There’s also Me & You, something new by Bernardo Bertolucci that doesn’t seem like much — a moody teen introvert (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) skips a class ski trip to spend a week hidden in his family’s second apartment. Then his junkie half sister (Tea Falco) shows up to detoxify herself. Like I said, it’s not much, but Bertolucci gives the film a restless elegance that constitutes depth.

If you’ve never had a chance to spend 90 or so minutes with the perceptive German director Christian Petzold, Film Comment Selects presents two of his early films — 2003’s Wolfsburg and 2005’s blunt, haunting Ghosts — that have been previously unreleased in the United States. His movies are mostly centered on strong women and the damage done to them. (His last drama released here was 2012’s Barbara, with Nina Hoss, who’s in most of Petzold’s films, as a banished East German physician.) He can go off the emotional deep end, but he makes the leap feel like a talent.

One of the highlights of the schedule is “Healthcare Mayhem,” an institutional double bill of Blake Edwards’s The Carey Treatment and Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital. They’re both absurdly entertaining left-wing mysteries. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the latter, and it’s another wry thunderclap with prime George C. Scott basically doing Zeus in a lab coat.

The Edwards has James Coburn as a Boston doctor, purportedly looking into the investigation of an abortion gone fatally wrong. But there are enough red herrings to pickle and put on a sandwich. One of them is Jennifer O’Neill as a sexy nutritionist who smells too good for Coburn to remember what his assignment is. The script is by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch (who used a pseudonym) and based on Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he also wrote pseudonymously. Edwards tried to go for the trifecta and at least have his name removed. They’re all crazy. It’s very 1972, especially the racism. But Hollywood’s not making many even semi-serious topical dramas anymore. This one holds up even when it’s forgotten what the topic is.

In Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal gets together again with his Prisoners director, Denis Villeneuve, to play a professor in Toronto who becomes obsessed with an actor who looks just like him. The movie’s based on a José Saramago book, and Villeneuve gives it just enough airless surrealism to be both outlandish and creepy. He’d probably never do it, but this is a guy you wouldn’t mind making a movie about volcanic eruption. He’d at least make sure Vesuvius was the star of Pompeii.

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris