Spending millions may spell disaster for some Hollywood movies, but for ''Volcano,'' that's the point

‘I used to hate L.A.,’ confesses British director Mick Jackson as he strolls the smoldering wreckage of Wilshire Boulevard. ”I thought it was shallow and vulgar. But I’ve come to love it. The richness of its culture. Its diversity. There’s a kind of eccentricity to it.” He scans the shattered storefronts, the burnt-out automobiles, the charred and smoking palm trees. ”In a way, it’s a little like England.”

As re-created on the set of Jackson’s Volcano, L.A. is more like Armageddon with Rollerblades. A quarter-mile strip of the city has been built nearly to scale on a gigantic parking lot in Torrance, Calif. And on this mild September evening, the director and his crew are turning the famous avenue into the world’s biggest open-pit barbecue. It’s an awesome exercise in destruction, requiring 150,000 gallons of liquid propane, 2,500 pounds of explosives, and about 250 tons of shredded blotter paper (for faux volcanic ash). You can’t help but be impressed — and also strangely satisfied.

”L.A. is the city people love to hate and hate to love,” Jackson says, savoring the moment. ”People like to see it get it in the butt.”

Here’s Volcano‘s so-implausible-it’s-almost-believable premise: A shift in the earth’s crust cracks open a volcanic vent under the La Brea Tar Pits, burping up an enormous glob of lava that rolls through L.A., incinerating buildings, Land Rovers, Angelyne billboards, and everything else in its path. Tommy Lee Jones is Mike Roark, head of L.A.’s Office of Emergency Management, who has to find a way to put a cork in it. To help him, there’s Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco) as a pretty young scientist with a love of all things geologic (yep, she’s a seismologist). But with a budget reported to be approaching $100 million — or about a million dollars per minute of running time — there’s no mistaking who the true star of this film is: Not since The Blob has so much been staked on the performance of a giant lump of killer Jell-O.

Correction: Make that not since Dante’s Peak, Universal’s reported $115 million lava picture, which raced through postproduction to open in February, beating Volcano into theaters by 11 weeks. That film, which had Pierce Brosnan battling molten rock in the Pacific Northwest, has grossed more than $64 million domestically so far, making it the biggest movie this year not to star Jim Carrey or Luke Skywalker. The two movies are actually pretty different — one has a little brown-and-white dog jumping over flames in a last-minute rescue, the other had a big yellow one — but still, that’s a lot of volcano over a short period of time. Has America had enough? Or is lava like love — more wonderful the second time around?

The idea for Volcano hit screenwriter Jerome Armstrong like a lava bomb out of the blue. ”About two years ago I was standing on a street corner in Santa Monica and I overheard two people talking,” he recalls. ”One guy said to the other, ‘We’ve had earthquakes, fires, floods, mudslides — what could possibly happen to us next?”’

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