Riots, mudslides, earthquakes, O. J.
Hasn't Los Angeles suffered enough already?
Nah, someone in Hollywood said. Let's bake 'em.
And so we have "Volcano," a mega-million-dollar production that turns L.A. into an open-air barbecue pit. It's L.A. as a lava-engorged, ash-spewing Armageddon. It's L.A., the makers of "Volcano" movie know all too well, the way a lot of people outside L.A. imagine seeing it.
Imagine this: We survived the eons with a grand total of zero volcano feature films only to have two of them erupting in 1997. One has a mountain ("Dante's Peak") and one -- this one -- has Tommy Lee Jones. Jones is good, but a mountain might have helped.
Or maybe not.
"Volcano," for all its special effects mayhem, isn't all that interesting, other than the thought-provoking notion that Los Angeles has been sitting on a massive pool of lava. The movie is formulaic, a deficiency that director Mike Jackson ("The Bodyguard") thinks will be excused if he lets us know that he knows that he's being conventional. He throws in plenty of witticisms -- a Hieronymus Bosch joke amid one conflagration is particularly good -- but they only serve to further distance us from a movie that already lacks genuine emotion. If they're going to laugh their way to the end of the world, why should we bother to get upset on their behalf? "Independence Day" suffered from the same excess of cuteness.
The fact is, natural disasters are dull villains. They lack complexity, motive, malevolence. And sometimes, like the lava in "Volcano," they look like the goop kids make in day-care. Sure it'll stick to your feet, but burn you up alive?
For all the evident money spent, some of the effects are laughable. Jackson resorts to television-like slow motion for some action sequences, and in a scene that is equal parts gruesomeness and comedy, he has a public works guy melt, Wicked Witch-like, in a sea of magma.
In fairness, though, some of the millions are well-spent, and the fire bugs in the house will find much to appreciate. Manholes erupt like geysers, and meteor-like fireballs whiz across the sky, obliterating blocks at a time.
Gets their attention
Jackson's Los Angeles needs that kind of horror to merit the city's attention. He creates an L.A. inured to disaster, a place so casual to adversity that within moments of a violent earthquake, city workers have a betting pool on its Richter-scale reading. It takes lava pouring down Wilshire Boulevard to earn a double-take.
Unlike in many a disaster movie, Jackson has a first-rate cast to plop down in the middle of the inferno. Jones plays Mike Roark, the director of emergency management, who, we learn, would always disdain a desk when there's an opportunity to put himself in serious jeopardy.
Jones is so charismatic an actor because he always gives the impression that he is barely able to keep a lid on his demons. He is a human volcano about to pop. But the script here requires little interior life, little more than a bland action hero barking orders -- "Take him to Cedar!" "Turn that bus over!"
Still, Jones is good enough to take his shots where he can find them. You see misery in his craggy face when he sends his 13-year-old daughter away to safety when all she wants is to be with her daddy. And Jones may be the first disaster movie hero to convey even momentary indecisiveness. After nearly an hour and a half of incredible resourcefulness, he's called upon to stop lava from swallowing up a hospital. He looks dazed and empty, as if he is thinking, "Just how many miracles do you want from me?"
Anne Heche ("Donnie Brasco") as seismologist Amy Barnes also manages to find her chances. Her character is smart enough not to get all pouty because her gender and expertise cause resistance. Idiots are just a fact of life that she gamely overcomes. Don Cheadle, a crazy yet charming sociopath in "Devil in a Blue Dress," also rises above the largely comedic role written for him as Jones' deputy.
As professional as its acting, "Volcano" still doesn't avoid man-made disasters, particularly its trite evocations of racial harmony. Jackson films them with so little conviction that they come across as manipulative and cynical. You leave "Volcano" feeling a bit singed.
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche and Don Cheadle
Directed by Mike Jackson
Released by 20th Century Fox
Rating PG-13 (language, gruesome deaths)
Sun score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 4/25/97