After a seemingly minor earthquake one night in Los Angeles, a giant burst of lava is released from the La Brea Tar Pits, resulting in the birth of a new volcano under the city. City officials are reluctant to believe scientists who notice the early warning signs (the temperature of a lake rises 3 or 4 degrees in 48 hours) but they learn their lesson when lava begins to spill out into the streets and to destroy buildings and cars. Dedicated Emergency Management director Mike Roark rushes to the rescue, with help from a plucky seismologist.
Directed by: Mick Jackson
. Starring: Tommy Lee Jones
, Anne Heche
, Gaby Hoffmann
, Don Cheadle
, Jacqueline Kim
, Keith David
, John Corbett
, Michael Rispoli
, John Carroll Lynch
, Marcello Thedford
, Laurie Lathem
, Bert Kramer
, Bo Eason
. Music by: Alan Silvestri
Watching Mick Jackson's disaster flick, in which the eponymous natural disaster wreaks havoc throughout Los Angeles, is like watching a 3 a.m. infomercial. It's such silly, mindless fluff, yet there's just something about it that keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
"Volcano" is admittedly well-cast and acted, despite a dreadful script and a plot whose summary could fit on a matchbook. Tommy Lee Jones, who would give 110% making a McDonald's commercial, stars as Mike Roark, the hard-boiled head of the Office of Emergency Management, where he is assisted by his sidekick Emmit (Don Cheadle). After initially pooh-poohing the thought of a volcano in L.A. from geologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche, who constantly ends her lines with a four-letter word like a period after a sentence), it's only a matter of time before he is proved wrong before his very eyes. Other solid performances come from Jacqueline Kim (Dr. Calder), John Carroll Lynch (Stan, the oft-maligned subway boss), and Keith David, a great actor who is otherwise wasted here in a role as a police lieutenant who has no impact on any events in the film, which is halfway over before he even appears on screen for the first time.
However, there's the small problem of having something resembling a good story to go with the awesome visuals, which are indeed spectacular. But forget the volcano; Jerome Armstrong's script poses the greatest threat to the characters. To put it mildly, it's the biggest piece of cliché-ridden muck to come along in awhile, laden with plot holes, smarmy sentimentality (the offender here being a dog rescue scene near the beginning) and heroics, forced we-are-all-brothers morals, and implausibilities. Yes, this film is rooted far from reality, but it should make a little sense along the way.
Working at the OEM must be the cushiest job in the world, for all the employees do throughout the picture is holler at each other and stare blankly at computer monitors. (And why do they continuously show news broadcasts on their big screen? Is that where their disaster briefings come from?) Mike's sullen daughter (Gaby Hoffmann, in a thankless role in the tradition of "True Lies" and "FaceOff"), due to her own incompetence, is suddenly thrust into peril and is thus separated from her father, a subplot that helps build up what turns out to be one great big joke of an ending. Describing it here can't do it justice. (After being taken to the hospital in Dr. Calder's Land Rover to receive treatment for a second-degree burn on her right leg, she is seen some time later with a bloody scab on her left cheek as she talks to Mike on the phone. And you thought your HMO was rough.) Plus, I seriously doubt that someone who jumps right into a pool of hot lava would slowly melt like a snowman in Miami while he screams and tosses the body of a man nearly twice his size to safety from a burning subway train. Then there's the wonderful family-oriented scene of two firemen burned alive in their overturned truck.
And, lest we forget that "Volcano" takes place in L.A., there's the obligatory racist-cop episode in which a black man asking the fire chief to help his neighborhood is suddenly handcuffed out of nowhere by an officer for "harassing" him, a tacky scene complete with (groan) references to Rodney King and Mark Fuhrman. (The whole time he's cuffed, the black man makes carefree wisecracks to the officers all while his 'hood is burning to cinders.) But, of course, everything's eventually resolved. "You're a good man," the other cop praises his partner after the latter grudgingly dispatches fire trucks to the black man's neighborhood, as if he has performed some immense display of generosity.
In another lovely homage to L.A., there's also a looting scene, where extras run incredibly slow while carrying empty boxes.
And what in the world was with the constant barrage of news reporters? Did we really need someone reporting "The house behind me has just exploded into flames...all hell is breaking loose!" while people were running for their lives all around her? As the volcano explodes out of the La Brea Tar Pits and lava is running onto the street, it's from a reporter describing this sight from where we hear one of the worst lines in the film: "It's as if the tar had caught fire, melted and somehow expanded." Hey, McFly, if tar is already a liquid to begin with, then how in the world can it melt?
When an army of helicopters drops gallons of water on the lava blocked off on Wilshire, the reporters and camera crews, who are camped right up against the concrete barriers, manage to stay conveniently dry the entire time.
Despite a high body count, scores of injured civilians and billions of dollars in damages, everybody's smiling as soon as a rainfall ensues, like those 7up commercials circa 1986. ("Feels so good comin' down!" Remember that?) Lots of questions are left unanswered: How will they clean up and repair everything? Will a future eruption occur soon? Will the Cubs win the World Series?
Yet for all its pretentiousness and gaping flaws, I have to admit that "Volcano" was entertaining. It's a load of escapist camp that doesn't have a care in the world. And I do have to give credit where it's due; somehow the filmmakers managed to keep slow-moving lava exciting for 104 minutes.
Plus, you can't help but get a kick out of a disaster film that includes the line "This city's finally paying for its arrogance," and finds the time to include a Bible quotation.
Review by SwingBatta from the Internet Movie Database.