L.A. Is One Hot City

THE SECRET OF Volcano's success as a better-than-average disasterama is its nonstop pace. Like the lava that streams down L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard incinerating everything in its path, the relentless succession of wham-bang images simply rolls over each and every cliche in the script, smothering your objections in the process.

Unlike "Dante's Peak," which postponed the cork-popping for an hour, "Volcano" gets right down to business with a hefty quake, the effect of which is to open the tectonic doors to the volcanic juices lying in wait to destroy Los Angeles. Director Mick Jackson and his screenwriters (Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray) are smart enough to know we didn't come for "character development." We want to see L.A. trashed. (What other burg can stand in for Sodom and Gomorrah these days?) To document the destruction, Jackson adopts a faux-newsreel style, which makes "Volcano" seem like a continuation of all the other times we've watched L.A. withstand real-life assault--from fires, mudslides, tidal waves, quakes, looters, arsonists and, most recently, armed-to-the-teeth bank robbers.

Jackson is the man who directed the affectionately satirical "L.A. Story." This could be seen as its giddily nightmarish sequel. The fun of the movie is in the background details--a giant billboard of Angelyne, L.A.'s self-appointed sex icon, crashing to the streets; a Metro subway driver reading "How to Write Screenplays That Sell" as he heads to his lava-licked fate; the banner at the enflamed County Art Museum announcing its Hieronymus Bosch show. Anyone familiar with the city will be impressed with the movie's re-creation of the Miracle Mile district, constructed in a parking lot at a McDonnell Douglas Aircraft plant. The lava heads west toward that bulky bunker of consumerism, the Beverly Center, where our hero, Emergency Management Control head Tommy Lee Jones, and our heroine, seismologist Anne Heche, must make one last-ditch effort to save the West Side from deep-frying.

Jones and Heche have to create their characters on the run, and skimpy as these roles are, they give them urgency and a plausible aura of intelligence. Unfortunately, the plot requires Tommy Lee to be concerned about his terrified 13-year-old daughter (Gaby Hoffmann), a tiresome whiner whose survival is hardly a burning issue. A further gaffe is the high-minded subplot about a white racist cop and a black homeboy who learn to work together under the shadow of the volcanic ash, which all too symbolically transforms black and white into the same shade of gray. Oh, well, nobody said "Volcano" was profound. Happily, no bad idea hangs around long enough to become truly noisome. "Volcano," busily and cheerfully hysterical, always has some new fish to fry, new truck to melt, new skyscraper to tumble or new manhole to pop with a radiant gusher of movie magma.

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