Directed by: Mick Jackson
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffman, John Carrol Lynch
Preceded by Dante’s Peak, Volcano was “the other” volcano movie of 1997. It is by far the dumbest of the two. It is also, by far, the most entertaining.
Volcano stars Tommy Lee Jones as Mike Roark, chief of the Los Angeles Office of Emergency Management and single father to a teenage daughter (who we know will inevitably end up in mortal danger). Roark is on vacation but cuts it short when a minor earthquake shakes Los Angeles. He gets even more to deal with as a crew from the Department of Water and Power get scorched to death while working underground in MacArthur Park. Roark wants to shut down the subway under the park, but the subway chief refuses to listen.
“Find me a scientist!” barks Roark who wants to know what’s going on and doesn’t buy the official explanation that the workers accidentaly dug into a “steam pocket”. He gets geologist Amy Barnes, played by Anne Heche. She suspects volcanic activity below L.A. Amazingly, as boss over the emergency management department in a city situated in one of the most geologically unstable areas of the United States, Roark has never heard of “magma” and has to have the concept explained to him by Barnes. He then brushes her off, much like the subway boss brushed Roark off.
Barnes and a colleague decide to take matters into their own hands and sneak down into the tunnels below MacArthur to investigate. With unerring timing, they choose the very moment a new earthquake hits, this one much more violent. Barnes colleague falls into a crack and burns to death. Moments later, the La Brea Tar Pits erupt and start spewing out steam and lava. Roark and his teenage daughter find themselves in the middle of the ensuing chaos. Roark leaves the daughter in the care of Dr. Jaye Calder (Jacqueline Kim) who takes her to Cedars Sinai hospital, while Roark himself gets busy saving L.A.
As lava flows down Wilshire Boulevard, Roark directs the fire department and police to build a wall from concrete freeway dividers to stop the flow. This succeeds, but then Ms. Barnes delivers more bad news: the lava keeps flowing through the subway tunnels and will erupt to the surface at the Beverly Center – next to Cedars Sinai, where Roark’s daughter is.
This is where this already quite action packed movie goes into idiot overdrive. Roark is about to give up the seemingly impossible fight against the forces of nature, when he comes up with a spectacular plan: they will topple a newly constructed high-rise through the very precise art of controlled demolition and use it as a barrier, forcing the lava into a trench which is blasted into the street itself. Time available to accomplish this astounding feat: 20 minutes. Of course, they pull it off. The action culminates with Roark outrunning the collapsing building to save his daughter.
This movie is about as preposterous as they come, and the final 20 minutes are plain absurd. The plot is also littered with amazing inconsistencies, which make it possible to dangle above the incredibly hot lava and escape unscathed in one scene, while in the next scene anything even remotely close to the lava flow will catch fire.
But dumb as it may be, Volcano serves up loads of quite good looking lava porn at a brisk pace, turning downtown L.A. into a flaming hell. The eruptions and various explosions are sometimes positively orgasmic, with director Mick Jackson repeatedly filling the frame with almost abstract closeups of hot, steaming magma. It also offers a few really horrible deaths – perhaps most memorable is the scene where the subway boss makes up for his earlier arrogance by actually melting as he saves the the driver of a subway train caught in the lava.
It is all pretty entertaining, and Tommy Lee Jones turns in a decent performance. What detracts from the movie, however, is the fantastically clumsy way it attempts to integrate a serious message. However heartfelt the call for unity between classes and races may be, it is so heavy-handedly presented that the result is nothing but cringe-worthy. Point in case: the racist cop who finds time in the middle of the raging disaster to stop and arrest a black guy for the crime of being a bit cocky – and said cop’s subsequent conversion to good guy.
By no means a great film, Volcano is nevertheless a fun contribution to the disaster genre, and does its job (if not its scientifitc homework) better than Dante’s Peak. Plus Tommy Lee Jones is way cooler than Pierce Brosnan will ever be.