The poorly timed but well-made Volcano arrives three months after Dante’s Peak, to which it is infinitely superior. I was more than a little surprised at how gripping Volcano is, especially after many critics (such as Roger Ebert) dumped on it — as if the chowderheaded Dante’s Peak were a masterpiece and Volcano a pale imitation. (For the record, both films went into production simultaneously; when the release of Dante’s Peak was bumped up to February 1998, Volcano got pushed back to April.)

The movie, of course, is just another megabudget pre-millennial blow-out. But these things can be done well or badly, and Volcano goes full steam ahead. Like Speed and Twister, it half-heartedly sketches in some human-interest banalities but wastes very little time on them — unlike Dante’s Peak, with its yawning hour of exposition and its unforgettable stupid Grandma sloshing through the acid. Actually, my only gripe about Volcano is that it offers nothing comparably laughable. Where Dante’s Peak was campy and dumb, Volcano is taut and stressful.

The disaster shown in Dante’s Peak could conceivably happen; the one in Volcano — Los Angeles consumed by cranky lava stirred up by a quake — isn’t nearly as likely, and yet this is the more convincing movie. Partly it’s because of the special-effects sequences, which aren’t just better, they’re better-paced and better-placed; the director, Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard), knows how to build one spectacle on another. Early in his career, Jackson made a post-nuclear film for British TV called Threads, and he evokes the fear and chaos of an apocalyptic situation without skimping on the destructive fun.

Volcano also gains from Tommy Lee Jones in his hyper-efficient Fugitive mode, playing an L.A. crisis manager who rattles off orders like a human Morse-code machine. When he tells hundreds of assembled cops and firefighters that they’ve got to build a six-foot wall to contain the lava, nobody questions him — you don’t question Tommy Lee Jones. He has a good match in Anne Heche as a brilliant geologist who’s calm and unflappable in the face of tons of lava. Next to that, a few nosy reporters asking about Ellen must seem like nothing.

Jackson also directed the excellent Steve Martin satire L.A. Story, and Volcano is almost its disaster-flick sister. When the movie takes a breather from destruction, it’s usually to get in some jab at the media center of the universe. Forty-five actual newscasters appear as themselves in Volcano, flitting around the apocalyse like moths around a lamp. We glimpse one man on a subway train reading How to Write Screenplays That Sell (perhaps he survived to pitch this movie). Racial tension is touched on, but only to set up the cheesy moment when everyone is covered in gray ash — get it? Nobody’s black or white now!

What I liked most about Volcano is that it has almost no narrative flab. Like Tommy Lee, it goes in with both hands and gets the job done — it concerns itself almost exclusively with problem-solving (okay, the lava is oozing down the street — we need a barrier). And it puts a great spin on a tired cliché in recent disaster movies: the dog that escapes doom by a whisker. Here, the dog gets out of a lava-ravaged building in the nick of time — but only after pausing thoughtfully to pick up his chew toy.

Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, underrated

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