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I Lava L.A.!

Volcano destroys the City of Angels with hot magma and cool affection

If you think that all the ills of the planet can be traced to the stench from the movie, record and television industries, and that Los Angeles is, therefore, Sin City incarnate, then Volcano could prove a peak experience. The movie is set in L.A., and audiences may well get high just watching the city crash and burn. You don't even have to hate L.A. to enjoy it -- a love/hate relationship will do. That's why Volcano closes with Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.," a facetious mock-anthem that, of course, makes it L.A.'s true anthem.

Volcano, with Tommy Lee Jones as L.A.'s Emergency Management Control honcho and Anne Heche as a smarty-pants volcanologist, is a lot better than John Carpenter's recent I-Hate-L.A. opus, Escape from L.A., which exploited the hell out of the city's racial antagonisms in the guise of a punk cartoon. And it's way more fun than this year's other volcano movie, Dante's Peak. Volcano really piles on the magma, letting it roll down Wilshire Boulevard like an enormous melted cheese sandwich; it even clogs the arteries of the underground Metro Rail. It's all kind of pretty, really; even the volcanic fireballs that thump the air like Scud missiles have a party-time panache. Earthquake movies aren't very photogenic, but volcano movies are spangled and showoffy. It's as if even the molten forces of nature wanted to get into show biz.

A sense of humor can go an unconscionably long way in a disaster movie, and in Volcano the filmmakers and the audience are in on the same joke. L.A. is once again the target of divine retribution -- ain't it wonderful? The film's hate-L.A. jokes aren't mean and vindictive, though. This is, after all, an anti-L.A. movie made by Hollywood insiders who have a high time torching their own playground. There's an affectionate knowingness to the knocks in this movie -- like the shot of the Metro Rail conductor reading the book Writing Screenplays That Sell or the surreal image of the huge Angelyne billboard kerplunking from a great height into a lava bed.

The jokes in Volcano aren't wedged into the action as an afterthought. They're part of the film's texture, and you keep waiting for them. Watching this film is a little bit like getting mauled and tickled at the same time. The filmmakers have given the whole shebang a hefty levity, and that's not easy to accomplish in a full-scale disaster movie.

The cast helps. Heche's role is familiar, but she spouts her smart-ass lines as if she's really smart. As an Emergency Management aide, Don Cheadle is like a one-man jive-ass Greek chorus; looking at the lava, he says, "Even Moses couldn't reroute this shit." Cheadle is such an original actor you forget what a bummer his role could have been if played straight. His taunting, insinuating wit must act as a kind of inner metronome; his comic rhythms -- velvety, but with a snap -- are unlike any other actor's. Cheadle is funny in ways that catch you off guard. Maybe he's caught off guard too -- he shares with us his delight in his own delight.

Tommy Lee Jones doesn't exactly sound any new depths here, but he gives his stalwart-hero role some recognizably human shadings and some spunk, and in a special-effects movie such as this one, that can make all the difference in the world. Playing Mike Roarke, apparently the only guy in L.A. who knows what to do when the plates shift and the magma mounts, he's a whirling dervish of counterattacks. It's Mike versus the volcano.

Still, the film saddles him with one of those heart-tugging subplots in which he must finally rescue his daughter (Gaby Hoffmann) from a collapsing shopping center as she attempts to save an errant toddler. Volcano may be smart, but it's far from shameless. The sequence in which Mike sprints to his daughter's aid is too flat-out melodramatic. The scene is exciting, all right, but it's too square-jawed for this movie. What you take away from the film aren't its last-minute-rescue extravaganzas, but the little human touches and Cheadle and the lava effects and the jibes, such as the exchange between two rescue workers as they retrieve a Hieronymus Bosch painting from the flame-engulfed L.A. County Museum of Art.

Perhaps I'm asking too much from this kind of film. But Volcano is just off-center and squiggly enough to make you wish the filmmakers had jettisoned the usual disaster-movie plot mechanics and gotten really nasty-funky. Though it's the wittiest entry in the trash-L.A. genre so far, director Mick Jackson doesn't take the love/hate L.A. fantasies to the max. He balances the good jokes with dreary stuff about an emergency room physician (Jacqueline Kim) risking her own life to save others. There's a why-can't-we-all-just-get-along section featuring a racist white cop who handcuffs a black brother until he realizes four hands are better than two when it comes to stopping the lava. The volcano seals up their racial divide.

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