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'Volcano': 1 on the Richter Scale

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 25, 1997

"Twister" had a twister, "Dante's Peak" a Dante's Peak, so how come there's no volcano in "Volcano"? The hokey disaster drama features towering plumes of smoke, a splendid display of fireworks and brimstone, and rivers of molten magma, but I'll be darned if there's a burning mountain.

Truth be told, they should have called the picture "Lava," since the red-hot goo presents the principal threat to protagonist Mike Roark (stalwart Tommy Lee Jones), whose ingenuity is all that stands between the burbling goo and the city of Los Angeles.

Mike, a workaholic divorce, is spending quality time with his quarrelsome 13-year-old, Kelly (Gaby Hoffmann), when an earthquake shakes the city. Over his daughter's petulant protests, Mike races off to assume his duties as director of the Office of Emergency Management, where his able backup (Don Cheadle) already has things under control. After reassuring himself that city services are functioning reasonably well, Mike returns home to deal with Kelly, who is planning to get her nose pierced.

Elsewhere, saucy seismologist Amy Barnes (appealing Anne Heche) measures the quake's magnitude on the Richter scale, while in MacArthur Park, subway workers make bets on the temblor's magnitude and epicenter. At Beverly Center, affluent residents protest plans to bring the subway to their neighborhood.

That night, Mother Nature decides to rearrange her tectonic plates, an act that brings on a second quake and opens a vent in the Earth's crust under the La Brea tar pits. As Mike, with Kelly in tow, once again hurries to his office, a fiery geyser shoots into the dark sky, propelling bursting lava bombs into familiar landmarks and filling the air with choking gases and clouds of ash.

Fires break out, traffic collides, people are injured, and Mike springs into action. Joined by police, firefighters and heroic civilians, they struggle to restore order. Kelly, who's cowering in Dad's Jeep, suddenly notices a river of lava creeping from the tar pits toward Wilshire Boulevard. The operative word here is "creeping."

In "Dante's Peak," the sizzling magma surged and splashed, but it was running downhill. In this case, it sometimes flows uphill as it spreads like warm Cheez Whiz toward the Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai hospital, where thousands -- including Kelly -- are being treated in MASH-type units in the parking lot.

Amy, who discovers a second river of lava surging through the subway tunnels, urges Mike to take her findings into consideration when attempting to change the course of the Wilshire Boulevard flow. Of course, she is attracted to the big lug. There's something so manly about the jut of his jaw, the cut of his jib . . .

Cliches are bountiful in the script by debuting writers Jerome Armstong and Billy Ray: Along with the inevitable spunky love interest, they serve up a father-daughter reconciliation, not one but two doggy rescues and an embarrassingly obvious lesson in brotherhood -- at one point, a cherubic child looks around at the faces gray with ash and chirps, "They all look alike."

While disaster yarns aren't known for subtlety, there are limits, and "Volcano" giddily goes beyond them. Director Mick Jackson, who also made Steve Martin's wry "L.A. Story," must have had his hands full with the logistics of this bombastic extravaganza. He sets a blistering pace, but the movie never generates any real thrills. We just can't identify with the characters, who are simply on hand to outsmart the lava. (Barely.)

But if your idea of entertainment is red-hot rocks and liquefied boulders, "Volcano" will prove a regular lavapalooza.

Volcano is rated PG-13 for language and natural violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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