Movie disasters happen not on the screen but at the box office and Volcano, just like 1997's earlier lavafest Dante's Peak, must stand or fall on the quality of the product. This, then, should fare rather better than the little seen Brosnan starrer.
By involving almost an entire city and much of its population (rather than Dante's Peak's two-bit town and an almost lone family) Volcano ups the cinematic ante - but at the same time it sets a trap for itself that it never quite escapes, relying too heavily on CNN cross-cut exposition to give it scope. Instead it works best falling back on those trusty disaster genre staples: a reluctant hero Mike Roark (Jones, reluctant because he's supposed to be on holiday); a plucky and smart femme Dr. Amy Barnes (Heche); plus a child in peril (Roark's daughter, played by Gaby "Sleepless In Seattle" Hoffmann) and, er, a dog. Make that two dogs.
When the lake in MacArthur Park reaches bath-time temperature, seismologist Barnes drops by and begins to fear the worst. Concerned LA emergency services chief Roark does his cautious best to keep the city going. But then Barnes reports that a vent is "possible" and all of a sudden, anything is. The fissure beneath the park first fries her seismologist buddy then starts spewing the hot stuff and raining fiery rock bombs onto terrified Angelenos. So far, so daft, so good.
Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of vulcanology will point out that this scenario would never stand up in Thunderbirds, let alone a court of geological law, but try to forget that the "lava" more resembles undercooked scrambled eggs, believe it'll burn much more than the roof of your mouth, and take a big fat bite. Then strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. Strap yourself in very tightly, in fact, because Volcano races along at the pace of a firetruck - even though those in the movie are usually stranded and stationary or unfathomably trying to put out fires in buildings that are being engulfed and demolished by lava. Equally amusing is the moment when, with seemingly half the Pacific Ocean being dropped from a swarm of helicopters, no one below gets wet.
But for anyone willing to swallow a large pinch of salt there is much to enjoy in the film's numerous nail-munching, white-knuckle set-pieces variously employing firetruck ladders, subway trains and a finale so ridiculous that it just... might... work. That, and a sequence showing hell-on-earth Hieronymus Bosch paintings being rescued from a gallery prove that LA Story director Jackson has retained his healthy sense of humour.
So too Tommy Lee Jones, who hams it up while somehow bringing dignity to a role that forces him to wrestle with a script and an errant child that do him and his character no favours. None of it makes a hell of a lot of sense and the supporting cast are wallpaper thin, but Volcano is at least hot on entertainment.