Directed by Mick Jackson. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Jacqueline Kim, Keith David, John Corbett. (1997, PG-13, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 25, 1997
British transplant Mick Jackson, director of the celebrated BBC post-nuke saga Threads, returns to the disaster epic in this laughably ridiculous take on what we all secretly dream of: Los Angeles, washed away in a huge, molten tide of cheese -- uh, lava, I mean. I can only assume Irwin Allen is doing wheelies in his grave these days, having missed the resurgence of disaster films of late. First Dante's Peak, now Volcano, both with stunningly similar stories, but coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. While Dante's Peak at least offered some sort of glimpse into the geological workings of volcanoes and the men and women who study them, Volcano dispenses entirely with the intellect and goes straight for the guts. Audiences are treated to dozens of flaming stuntmen, pounds of singed flesh, toppled buildings, and Wilshire Boulevard melting into a big gooey mess. We also get Tommy Lee Jones as the head of the Los Angeles office of emergency services, Anne Heche as the sexy seismologist, and Gaby Hoffman as Jones' imperiled, estranged daughter. Unfortunately, what we don't get is any sort of reason to care about these people, or, for that matter, anything else. Crucial to the nature of the disaster film -- and something that Irwin Allen knew so very well -- is that films of this sort depend on an emotional hook, a peg of normalcy to hang the chaos from. Volcano offers no such hook, and as a result it plays like some La Brea dinosaur risen from the tar, all effects and no heart. Which isn't to say that this story of a no-longer dormant volcano beneath Los Angeles isn't a hoot -- it is, sure, but in all the wrong ways. I'm tempted to view Jackson's film as an arch comedic metaphor: the L.A. lifestyle taken to its obvious conclusion. Screenwriters Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray have crammed the script with topical references to the L.A. riots, Rodney King, racial inequality, sexism, the ineffectuality of the 911 system, and reams of very, very bad dialogue. So bad, in fact, that the screening audience I viewed Volcano with seemed to enjoy it immensely, hooting and hollering and laughing as though it were an old episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Which, I firmly suspect and surely hope, it will eventually be. Until then, though, Volcano is an embarrassment, albeit one of the so-bad-it's-kinda-good variety. Tommy Lee Jones should have known better, but then again it's kind of fun to watch him outrun a collapsing 15-story building while lava plumes erupt all around him. In slow motion, no less. Irwin Allen wouldn't have wanted it any other way.