The second big-budget volcanic eruption of the season is neither appreciably better or worse than the first, although its nonstop action and teeming urban setting will probably give it an edge when the final tallies are tabulated. A furiously paced popcorn picture whose outrageous implausibility is somewhat amusing, “Volcano” delivers enough spectacular action to get it off to a hot B.O. start, although like the lava in the picture, it may not flow quite as far as anticipated.
Director Mick Jackson, making a gargantuan companion piece to his comic 1991 social study “L.A. Story,” and his first-time screenwriters Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray waste no time with exposition or scene-setting, starting the fireworks with a nerve-jangling morning earthquake that puts city workers on alert for possible damage.
Chief among them are Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones), director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, which takes remarkably efficient control of the increasingly chaotic situation given the track record of most governmental agencies. Separated from his wife and with a rebellious 13-year-old daughter, Kelly (Gaby Hoffmann), at home, Mike spends most of his time in the field, resourcefully solving problems as soon as they happen, with backup in the office from his second-in-command, Emmit Reese (Don Cheadle).
Soon turning up to help out is crack seismologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), whose knowledge of usual subterranean destructive patterns is compromised by the new subway tunnels under L.A. Indeed, one of the film’s numerous topical references is its anti-Metro stance; as Amy says after witnessing much destruction, “The city is finally paying for its arrogance.”
After seven workers are fried underground by a mysterious heat source, there is brief squabbling about what to do until, less than a half-hour in, the Big One hits. This creates the predictable panic and mayhem, but the most unexpected result is a fiery geyser that erupts from the bubbling La Brea Tar Pits, sending meteor-like lava bombs skyrocketing and then back to the ground, filling the night air with cascading ash and finally producing a lava flow that heads right onto Wilshire Boulevard alongside the L.A. County Museum of Art (fortunately, in the opposite direction from the offices of Variety, just a block to the East).Remaining hour is occupied by the frantic battle to stem the molten tide. Sending the injured, including his terrified daughter, to Cedars-Sinai hospital, Mike takes charge. With blazing palm trees, shattering glass and a billboard of Angelyne falling around him from the dark sky, Mike commandeers the firemen and police to channel the uncorkable flow with concrete highway dividers, which work for a time.
But the quick-thinking Amy suspects that the sizzling magma will merely find another route to travel, and soon determines that it will use the unfinished subway line to its dead end between the Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai, where hundreds of victims are gathered in tents and on the streets. In an insanely short period of time, an improbable but dramatic solution is hatched that just may preserve L.A. for the next disaster that can be devised to befall the city.
As this sort of picture goes, the action quotient is high but the body count is surprisingly low — 100 all tolled, only a few of which are shown onscreen. Most memorable, perhaps, is the heroic Metro worker who, resolving to save the passed-out driver of a subway train that has been engulfed in flames, is able to toss the man to safety but cannot prevent himself from melting down once he is forced to step in lava.
Allegedly weighing in at around $100 million, or a third more than its predecessor, “Dante’s Peak,” is said to have cost, production delivers the goods on the physical side. An 80% full-size replica of Wilshire Boulevard between the tar pits and Fairfax Avenue (reputedly the largest set ever constructed in the U.S.) was put up in Torrance and then destroyed on-camera in spectacular fashion. Stunts and volcano-related special effects are all quite convincing, although after this and “Dante’s Peak,” it must be admitted that, like its sci-fi equivalent the Blob, lava is not the most exciting of the destructive natural forces to watch onscreen.
Although there is certainly enough going on to keep the audience interested, and running time has been kept laudably economical, pic never generates a head of true excitement, partly because the characters remain constructs designed to perform defined functions, and partly due to the time-worn hokiness of the whole disaster-film format.
Script serves up the now near-requisite father-daughter emotional link, and making Jones’ common-man hero semi-available allows the possibility of low-key suggestions of future romance between him and Heche’s spry young scientist.
Pic is peppered with in-jokes and local references, including a Mark Fuhrman-like racist cop who senselessly detains a young black man during the pandemonium, the burning of the famously employment-seeking actor Dennis Woodruff’s car, and the presence of a Hieronymus Bosch exhibition at the L.A. County Museum at the time of the eruption.
Along with the impressive special effects, tech contributions in other departments are thoroughly solid.