Friday April 25, 1997
"Volcano" glows with heat. Lava heat. The coast may be toast, but it's the lava, covering everything like a malevolent tide of melted butter, that makes this a disaster picture that's tastier than usual.
Hollywood's last volcano movie, the misbegotten "Dante's Peak," was particularly stingy in the lava department, barely letting it flow. "Volcano" has no such qualms and though wet blanket scientists may question the likelihood of raging torrents of superheated goo rising from the La Brea tar pits intent on swallowing the Westside, the film's mightily impressive special effects will sway most doubters.
Shot on an 80% scale model of the Wilshire corridor constructed on 17-plus acres of the McDonnell Douglas plant parking lot in Torrance, "Volcano" will be particularly convincing for Los Angeles residents.
Seeing the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Deco May Co. building and surrounding sites, plus all those elegant Wilshire Boulevard palm trees, consumed by a relentless tide of lava is especially unnerving if you've spent time in the neighborhood.
As written by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray, "Volcano" also manages some sly moments that will be appreciated around town. A subway motorman reads "Screenplays That Sell," Metro workers are stigmatized as "the guys who collapsed Hollywood Boulevard" and a huge billboard of local icon Angelyne becomes a victim of the volcano's flames.
It's not surprising that director Mick Jackson highlights these and other funny touches; one of his credits is Steve Martin's "L.A. Story." Jackson also has a background in documentary work, and his ability, working with cameraman Theo van de Sande and editors Michael Tronick and Don Brochu, to move things along and create a sense of continuous urgency is critical to "Volcano's" effectiveness. Because at its core, "Volcano" is another one of those programmatic disaster movies, with dogs in jeopardy and kids wandering off at the worst possible moment. A great deal of its dialogue is of the "I know you're scared, I'm scared too" variety, and there's even room for the ever-popular "What is that?"
But a great sense of pace is a wonderful thing, and director Jackson and his crew (who made good use of hand-held and Steadicam shots and reportedly averaged an impressive 30 to 40 camera setups a day) move so quickly from shot to shot and location to location that viewers have a limited time to dwell on the film's predictable implausibilities.
"Volcano" also benefits from crisp work from its principals, especially Tommy Lee Jones as Mike Roark, the tireless head of L.A.'s fictional Office of Emergency Management. Few actors can look as indomitable or project the kind of take-no-prisoners fierceness that's a match for any natural disaster.
When strange things start happening below the placid surface of MacArthur Park after a mild earthquake, Roark almost immediately barks, "Find me a scientist who can tell me what the hell is going on." His staff comes up with feisty seismologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) who suspects a volcano. Roark smirks a sexist smirk, but it's not long before his toes are almost literally being held to the fire.
Heche, a strong actress who is rapidly bubbling up from the underground herself, appearing in "Donnie Brasco" and now this, proves to be one of the few performers of either sex capable of standing toe-to-toe with the fierce Jones, and their interaction is one of the film's pluses.
Other supporting players, including Don Cheadle as Emmit Reese, Roark's ambitious second-in-command, and Gaby Hoffmann as Roark's sullen teenage daughter, also manage to do what's necessary without overstaying their welcomes.
As that darn lava threatens to vaporize everything it touches, including Metro passengers who probably wish they'd taken their cars, Roark comes up with a wild and crazy plan to save the city. Hey, he knows it's a longshot, but that's the kind of guy he is.
In everything besides special effects, "Volcano" is allergic to breaking new ground, and viewers have to endure moments of bogus brotherhood and a chauvinist ending that pulls Dr. Barnes out of the line of fire to look for Roark's lost daughter. But it's hard to dislike a film where a character can survey a sea of lava and say, "Better take the freeway. Wilshire looks pretty bad." After the horrendous dramatics of "Twister," "Independence Day" and "Dante's Peak," a disaster movie that's not a complete disaster itself can be reason enough to smile.
Volcano, 1997. PG-13 for intense depiction of urban disaster and related injuries. A Shuler Donner/Donner and Moritz Original production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Mick Jackson. Producers Neal H. Moritz, Andrew Z. Davis. Executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner. Screenplay Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray. Story by Jerome Armstrong. Cinematographer Theo van de Sande. Editors Michael Tronick, Don Brochu. Costumes Kirsten Everberg. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Jackson Degovia. Art directors Scott Rittenour, Tom Reta, William Cruse. Set decorator K.C. Fox. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Tommy Lee Jones as Mike Roark. Anne Heche as Dr. Amy Barnes. Gaby Hoffman as Kelly Roark. Don Cheadle as Emmit Reese. Jacqueline Kim as Dr. Jay Calder. Keith David as Lt. Ed Fox.