Tornado! (1996)

Bruce Campbell in Tornado!
Directed by: Noel Nosseck
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Shannon Sturges, Ernie Hudson, L.Q. Jones, Charles Homet, Bo Eason, Carrie Boren

It is a scientific fact that everyone in the known universe loves Bruce Campbell, but even the presence of the handsomely chinned and effortlessly cool Mr. Campbell can’t disguise the utter mediocrity of this rather blatant Twister rip-off. Hitting television screens three days before Twister opened at multiplexes everywhere, Tornado! takes the same basic concept and gives it the low-budget TV-movie treatment.

Bruce plays Texas storm chaser Jake Thorne, who has teamed up with Dr. Joe Branson (Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame). Dr. Branson has spent the past six years developing a device, nicknamed PATTI (that looks strangely similar to Twister‘s Dorothy), to study tornadoes. Government grant auditor Samantha Callen (Shannon Sturges) arrives to evaluate Dr. Hudson’s project and decide if it is to recieve any more funding. Since the operation is headquartered at Jake’s grandfather’s farm, and there aren’t any hotels around, Ms. Callen accepts the offer to stay at the farm, and immediately changes to her best Wild West costume in order to blend in better.

The cast spend the next half-hour or so having a barbeque, getting drunk at a local bar, discussing tornadoes, and establishing the mutual attraction between Jake and Sam. Despite this, Samantha gets tired of waiting for anything to happen (echoing the viewer’s boredom at this point) and decides to go back to Washington. Jake is about to see her off at the airport when, at long last, a tornado actually shows up. Jake and company load the PATTI device into their car and speed across the prairie, only to realize that they’ve miscalculated the storm’s path. They can only watch in helpless horror as the twister levels the small town of Roseville.

Witnessing the aftermath of the Roseville tornado convinces Samantha that the research project is important, and she agrees to stay for a few more days. Jake’s grizzled old grandpa Ephram holds a personal grudge against tornadoes and doesn’t believe that science can deal with them – ”they have a devil’s heart”, he says. Based on nothing but gut feeling he predicts that a major twister will hit the farm. And guess what? Yep, one mother of a storm strikes right in the Thornes’ front yard, delivering the film’s single on-screen (well, almost) casualty and finally giving the team a chance to deploy the PATTI machine.

The likeable cast and none-too-serious tone of Tornado! can unfortunately not save it. Screenwriter John Logan went on to write big-time films like Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo, so obviously he has learnt a thing or two about storytelling along the way, but Tornado! is mostly a clichéd piece of work. It’s the actors themselves, more than the characters they play or the dialogue they speak, that hold my attention.

Disaster movies short on actual disasters are rarely much fun, and this is the main reason that Tornado! fails. It takes too long for anything interesting to happen, and when it does it isn’t very exciting anyway. It is a tepid, talky drama with a few disappointing tornado scenes tacked on – not really surprising given that it’s a Hallmark disaster movie, but still. The most impressive images of threatening clouds and vicious lightning storms are stock footage. The rest is dodgy CGI and shots of debris being blown around, and the director frequently cuts away for a commercial break where someone with a bigger budget would have crafted detailed scenes of terrible destruction. Even the climactic final tornado is a rather asthmatic affair – for a disaster movie, at least – that manages to collapse a few rickety outhouses at the farm but not much more.

The good points are the aforementioned cast, that exhibits a winning charm, and the fact that the film – with the exception of the low-end visual effects – is a neat and tidy production.

Twister may annoy the hell out of some people – parts of it annoy the hell out of me, and I’m a disaster movie junkie – but it does what a tornado movie is supposed to do: deliver loads of tornado mayhem. Tornado! doesn’t. Some might argue that this pedestrian depiction of storm chasers and the storms they chase is more realistic than what goes on in Twister, but realism is not the reason I watch disaster movies. I want flying cows, goddamnit!

Rating: 1/5

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