Last year, some bright spark in Hollywood decided that the planet was ready for a new flood of disaster movies. The ensemble cast classics of the '70s such as The Towering Inferno and Airport (not to mention its five sequels) were ripe for an update. And since contemporary special effects teams now have multi-million dollar CGI toys to play with, the disasters, explosions, rivers of lava and heroic escapes were going to be bigger, better and even more spectacular.
At least, that was the plan.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that no-one wanted to watch disaster movies. Dante's Peak bombed. Sylvester Stallone's Poseidon Adventure-in-a-tunnel film Daylight, left audiences unimpressed, and both Titanic and The Flood (the latter movie now retitled Hard Rain) caught the quickest train to Re-shoot City, from whence the finished products are still to emerge. Now, if you mention the words "disaster" and "movie" in Hollywood, you're likely to get laughed out of town. Thus James Cameron's Titanic is being pitched as a love story, and The Flood is likely to focus on a handy bank heist that takes place during the watery deluge, rather than said over-wetness itself.
Which brings us to Volcano, a classy disaster movie that's a true classic, but was virtually ignored on its release in America. It'd be a terrible shame if the same happens over here, because if you want to see how this type of wham-bam, present-the-characters-with-impossible-situations-and-let-(nearly)-all-of-them-escape movie should be done properly, then Volcano is almost the blueprint.
There is, just as you'd expect, the slow build-up to the inevitable disaster: few people believe that it's going to happen, and chances are they'll be the first to be made into pumice stones. Then there's the catalogue of character actors. Every time a new one pops up on screen you'll be nudging your mates and saying, "what was he in?" For the record, the faces include John Corbett (Northern Exposure), Gaby Hoffman (Sleepless In Seattle) and John Caroll Lynch (Fargo).
As for the "stars": Tommy Lee Jones barks his orders and delivers his lines with a wry sense of humour, and generally does an all-round top-notch job as the city-saving hero. After all, if your home town was about to be drowned in lava, wouldn't you want old stony face to be in charge? Anne Heche steps into the brainy woman scientist mould like a trouper, rather than playing the token, screaming bimbo, while Gaby Hoffman thankfully gives the bratty US kid act a miss.
But the real star in Volcano is the lava. It splurges through the streets and subways, burning and drowning everything that gets in its way. Cars explode, ash showers the city and, of course, much exciting mayhem and running about is the result. The wonderfully accomplished effects team invent increasingly ingenious ways to destroy the city, and take special pleasure in trashing some of Los Angeles' more notable landmarks.
In the end, this is more a chase movie than anything else, with gurgling, molten rock as the villain. And because this villain doesn't talk, the heroes get all the good lines. Citizen Kane it ain't; but if you want a spectacular and stylish modern take on a familiar genre, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Volcano is destined to become a classic disaster movie, with more than enough heart-in-mouth moments, running around and smart one-liners. Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche do an impressively convincing job of saving LA from a Pompeii-type fate.