And then to stand in the face of death and destruction, and to be that mighty. And then you’ve got that black fist up in the air…. As a black actor, you don’t get iconic roles in tentpoles.
“You will have to speak at some point.” Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) observes his new cellmate, a white kid (Kit Harrington) who doesn’t want to tell Atticus his name. Atticus is patient, though: until now, that is, 79 AD, he’s been the most awesome slave-gladiator in Pompeii. Recently arrived in line of other miserable men in chains, the newbie brings with him something of a reputation, renowned as a skilled, fast warrior and also, per his tribe, of which he is the only surviving member, as a horse trainer.
Atticus just wants to know his name, but the kid refuses. They don’t have to speak, he says, until he does, but “We’ll have to kill each other at some point.”
This seems about right. You already know, some 20 minutes into Pompeii, that the Celt’s name is Milo, and that he’s really mad at the Romans, who killed his family and tribe when he was a child, an especially mad at a senator named Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland), whose sinister, torchfire-lit face is ingrained in Milo’s memory and in a few too many flashbacks. Milo’s reluctance to give up this background information makes him seem a reluctant hero, a grudge-holding, stoic type who will make a perfect opposites-attracting partner for the gregarious, self-confident Atticus, and also, no surprise, an ideal boyfriend for the lovely Cassia (Emily Browning), herself just returned from a bad time in Rome and holding her own grudge against the bully Corvis. That both Milo and Cassia have had bad experiences with the senator is of course convenient, aligning them with one another and against him when he just so happens to arrive in Pompeii, too.
If you’re paying attention, say, to the film’s title, you know that this means everyone is on track to be destroyed when Vesuvius erupts. This—and a number of rumbles and lava gurgles—casts rather a grim inevitability on all the churning melodrama and muscular buddydom (Atticus and Milo’s shared glances across the gladiators’ arena as they smash and rip and impale all adversaries makes them simultaneously ancestors and descendants of any number of currently franchised superheroes, not to mention several circa-‘80s movie cops).
You know they’re all headed to that moment when their bodies will be encased in ash, frozen at the moment of their last breath and activity. And if you give it any thought, it may be disturbing that you come to see this nasty end as just desserts for Corvis and his minions but so-sad glory for Milo’s team.
While Sutherland manages some hissing within the confines of his uneven accent, for the most part, Corvis’ villainy—specifically, his untoward forwardness with Cassia back in Rome—is left to your imagination. What you don’t have to imagine is the ostensibly reserved Cassia’s sudden and vivid interest in Milo, whom she spots on the road back to Pompeii, as he’s trudging in chains and she’s riding in a horse-drawn carriage. The cutting between close-ups of their indicates instant, mutual attraction, the sort that always happens in moves about beautiful slave boys and upper-class maidens.
This version comes with an extra bite, when one of Cassia’s horses is injured and he steps forward to help, which ends up meaning he breaks its neck in one loud, swift motion. At once horrified and enchanted, Cassia’s eyes go wide while he does his best not to look at her at all. On this demonstration, Cassias slave companion, Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), tells you what you already know: “I never saw you look at any man the way you looked at that slave!”
Here and elsewhere the myth and romance of Pompeii become entangled in perversities of class and race distinctions, some, perhaps, alluding to history, but most sensational fictions. Most conventionally and least convincingly, the movie’s two same-sex, mixed-race friendships (Atticus and Milo, alongside the light-skinned Ariadne and utterly alabaster Cassia) suggests that slavery is just a circumstance, of birth, of bad luck, and that Cassia treats Ariadne as a kind of best high school girlfriend.
That she might be inclined to think this way despite her yucky dad Lucretius (Jared Harris), a local official trying to wheedle municipal funding from Corvis by putting on a grand show in the House of the Gladiators and also, oh yes, giving the visiting senator his daughter’s hand in marriage, is a stretch, but okay. This is a movie, after all, where the ultimate sign of the white couple’s true love is being frozen into an ashy embrace. That the film allows further a (very brief) suggestion that the two black slaves might make a good double-date option for that white couple is just silly.
The film’s use of Atticus as Milo’s buddy is equally incoherent. On one hand he’s as smart and splendidly charismatic as any of Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s characters. On another hand, he’s a man tormented, a man who’s believed promises (that he’ll be freed someday) because he’s had nothing else. A brilliant fighter who’s spent his life battling the wrong opponents, he’s at last turned into a sidekick. He warrants more.
Atticus’ moment of revelation is easily the film’s most moving, in part because the white kids are so resolutely insipid and in part because this very real shift in his thinking is of a piece with Pompeii’s: the folks there all thought they knew how the world worked, and if only they repeatedly sacrificed to their gods or their masters or their own intellectual limits, they’d come out all right.
Seeing that this is not true, and moreover, that it has never been true, Atticus takes a next, frightening and also thrilling step, throwing his allegiance with his own gods, his own might, and his own black fist up in the air. It’s a moment on which the movie cannot linger, rushing off instead to watch Milo and Cassia try their best to escape the volcano’s fury. They can’t see what Atticus has seen. But they don’t have to.