directed by Mick Jackson
(20th Century Fox, 1997)

The image that sticks with me doesn't involve hot magma exploding from the Los Angeles underground or molten lava consuming everything in its wake as it sweeps down the city's streets.

The special effects of Volcano are adequate, not exceptional. Instead, the scene that I keep replaying in my head involves a man carrying a wounded coworker and realizing that fast-flowing lava has cut off their escape route. Rather than dumping the unconscious man and leaping to safety, the man jumps directly into the lava and heaves his coworker into rescuers' arms.

Heroism is the real focal point of Volcano, a movie soundly trounced by critics when it was released in 1997.

Perhaps it's the mindset that comes with having lived through the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that made me sit up and take notice now, more than six years since the movie first hit the screen. Stories of personal heroism and sacrifice, of ordinary people who died saving others, are now a part of our public consciousness.

And so the transit supervisor who dies saving an employee's life stays with me. So, too, does the firefighter who dies trying to save a comrade trapped in a wrecked engine. The demolitions men who, trapped by fallen debris, green-light the explosion that kills them. The father who runs into danger when he sees his daughter and a small child in harm's way. The doctor who risks her own death to treat injured rescue workers.

Those are the touches that make Volcano worth watching. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard entry in the field of natural disaster flicks, lacking sufficient mindblowing visuals and boasting some questionable plot and dialogue choices. (For example, Jacqueline Kim is a strong presence as the dedicated Dr. Jaye Calder; the subplot with her snobbish husband does nothing to further the story.)

That said, Tommy Lee Jones turns in the kind of performance we've come to expect from him; serious or comedic, he handles every role thrown his way with deft precision and a believable mien. Anne Heche is also good in the thankless role of Dr. Amy Barnes, the mandatory scientist whose dire warnings are ignored until it's too late. (Her secondary role as the obligatory love interest is forced and unnecessary.)

Volcano may not rank high among disaster flicks, but in this case, the human drama gives it the edge it needs to warrant watching.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 6 December 2003

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