Vulcanologist Harry Dalton (Brosnan) and town mayor Rachel Wando (Hamilton) become convinced that nearby Dante's Peak is about to erupt. But can they convince the townspeople before the mountain goes ballistic?
The battle of the volcano movies commenced with this $100 million-plus effort, first out of the melting pot - ahead of rival pic Volcano - eager to alert audiences of the dangers of living too close to a really big smoking mountain. Or, to put it a bit more simply, this is yet another one of those mindlessly enjoyable outings which eschews such unimportant details as plot or characterisation in favour of the biggest, flashiest special effects money can buy. Twister with lava, if you will.
Brosnan is vulcanologist-with-a-past Harry Dalton, who, in a confusing opening sequence, fails to save his girlfriend from being fatally clonked on the head by a piece of stray volcanic rock (who said Cliffhanger at the back?). Cut to four years later, and said lonely eruption expert is dispatched to self-advertised nice-place-to-live Dante's Peak to investigate the rumblings of a hitherto long-dormant mountain. There he falls for local mayor-cum-coffee-shop-owner Rachel (Hamilton) and her two kids. When he detects signs of an imminent eruption but is shouted down by his boss, you just know it's only going to be a matter of time before the mount pours forth its contents, which it does in quite spectacular fashion.
And here is where the film really kicks in. After taking what seems like a volcanic age to get going, concentrating instead on peppering Brosnan's and Hamilton's inevitable courtship with appalling dialogue ("Making love is like riding a bicycle - you never forget," coos Brosnan with all the seductive charm of a rutting rhino), the special pyroclastic effects are definitely worth the wait. Ash falls from the heavens like snow, buildings crumple as though fashioned from matchsticks, cars and bridges are dramatically swept away, and every cliche in the disaster movie rule book is dragged out - from second-rung characters meeting untimely ends through to Rocky the heroic dog who may or may not make it through the mayhem.
Impressive though all this may be, what the film lacks is a sense of panic. Apart from a couple of brief post-eruption sequences, those who aren't buried under a ton of the hot stuff seem largely to be going through the motions. Still, the leads are likeable enough (Brosnan displaying the kind of square-jawed heroics with which he breezed through Goldeneye), the claustrophobic finale suitably tense, and despite a prevailing sense of the ridiculous, with suspension of disbelief this works just well enough to land it comfortably in the Saturday night special bracket. It does, however, serve as a cautionary reminder that the effects-are-everything formula is starting to wear thin.
It's certainly big, but it's not clever. The pyrotechnics may be effective, but a few shocks and surprises among the characters would not have gone amiss.