Lava Comes to La-La Land

Tommy Lee Jones isn't exactly sounding any new depths here, but he gives his stalwart-hero role some recognizably human shadings and some spunk. In a big special-effects movie such as this one, that can make all the difference in the world. Playing Mike Roarke, apparently the only guy in L.A. who knows what to do when the plates shift and the magma mounts, he's a whirling dervish of counterattacks. It's Mike versus the Volcano.

Still, the film saddles him with one of those heart-tugging subplots in which he must finally rescue his daughter (Gaby Hoffmann) from the collapsing Beverly Center mall as she attempts to save an errant toddler. Volcano may be smart, but it's far from shameless. The sequence where Mike sprints to his daughter's aid is too flat-out melodramatic; the crosscutting is as wham-bam as anything in Eisenstein. The scene is exciting all right, but too square-jawed for this movie at its best. What you take away from the film aren't its last-minute-rescue extravaganzas but the little human touches and Cheadle and the terrific lava effects and the jibes -- like the exchange between two rescue workers as they retrieve from the flame-engulfed L.A. County Museum of Art a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Perhaps I'm asking too much from this kind of film. But Volcano is just off-center and squiggly enough to make you wish the filmmakers had jettisoned the usual disaster-movie plot mechanics and gotten really nasty-funky. (This is precisely what Tim Burton did in Mars Attacks! and, judging from the response of most critics, you'd think he'd committed a crime on the order of colorizing Citizen Kane.) It's still the wittiest entry in the trash-L.A. genre. Director Mick Jackson made his valentine to Los Angeles with the 1991 Steve Martin comedy L.A. Story, which was such a sweet little picture that he probably thought his next greeting card should be more appropriate for Halloween.

Jackson's a Brit, and even though he now lives in L.A., he must still see the city as a bemused outsider. That bemusement serves him equally well whether he's torching the town or smothering it with wet kisses. Either way, L.A. is no more real to him than a theme park. That's how he's able to send it up with such impunity.

But Jackson doesn't take our love/hate L.A. fantasies to the max. His theme park has too many themes. He balances the good jokes with dreary stuff about an emergency-room physician (Jacqueline Kim) risking her own life to save others. There's a why-can't-we-all-just-get-along section featuring a racist white cop who handcuffs a black brother until he realizes four hands are better than two when it comes to stopping Mr. Lava. The volcano seals up their racial divide. And the lava never flows into the areas we'd like it to go -- like, say, Beverly Hills or Malibu or Bel-Air. The target corridor seems to have been chosen for its proximity to the La Brea tar pits, but primordial ooze isn't as funny as the ooze of the rich and fatuous.

As bubble-icious as the lava is in Volcano, the filmmakers end up giving it short shrift. The triumph of man over magma is depicted with the kind of high-five hoopla that makes us think we're watching an ESPN special. And the final shot of L.A.'s very own volcano -- which should be both hilarious and terrifying -- is barely a blip on the screen before the credits encroach.

Yet you still walk out of the film in a strangely mellow mood. There's a lot of bile fueling the L.A.-disaster-movie genre, but in Volcano the bile doesn't eat away at the fun. What the filmmakers are saying is, Yes, maybe Los Angeles should blow sky-high, but we'll sure miss having it around. Probably most of us in the audience feel the same way.

Written by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray; directed by Mick Jackson; with Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffmann, and Keith David.

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