Dante's Peaks & Valleys Acting and plot are a near-disaster, but when the lava flows, film sizzles.

February 07, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Dante's Peak" is essentially a remake of "Jaws" with the role of the shark played by a mountain.

Now, since a mountain doesn't slither through the water under a fin that cuts a wake of ominous bubbles, the poor filmmakers must strain credulity to work up the requisite early thrills.

A man falls down a mountain and breaks his leg!

Two people are boiled in a Jacuzzi from hell!

The hero is corrected in public by a supervisor!

Somebody who wants cappuccino gets espresso!

Worst of all: The water turns brown!

Then things start blowing up and all human performances and motivations are thankfully banished from the screen -- as are requirements for acting, which much of the cast finds oppressive anyway -- and we can just sit back and groove on the Zen of total destruction. The movie becomes a tectonic-plate pie fight between a mountain and a town.

Our hero is Bond-on-a-holiday Pierce Brosnan in his "anguished" mode. (He can do two things, basically, anguish and suavity; but hey, Fran Drescher can only do one.) He's an agent-man for the National Geographic Survey who is haunted by the death of his fiance in the debris spatter from an earlier volcano. Sent to the idyllic burg of Dante's Peak, Ore., when "the readings begin to look shaky," he soon concludes the benign peak that towers over all like Father Sky and gives the place its name is about to make Krakatau look like a balloon hitting a hat pin.

The troubling signs mount -- so does the music -- and the crease in his noble brow gets deeper. He convinces local mayor Linda Hamilton to call a meeting for the town elders, many of whom are evil Republicans who don't want volcano rumors to hurt business. Rest easy, liberal America, Hollywood justice will prevail: This scum will be roasted like baby pork ribs for their capitalistic avarice.

This public-safety/private-profit dichotomy is the tiff that divided Roy Scheider and Murray Hamilton and sustained "Jaws" for enough screen time until the large-scale killing could begin. It's much less interesting here, because Charles Hallahan as the slow-witted, strong-willed bureaucrat who prevents Brosnan from evacuating the town isn't an interesting character: He's just a functionary who will remind people not in the movie's primo demographic target group of Arthur Godfrey.

The rest is tepid love stuff between gruff Brosnan and single-mom-with-cute kids Hamilton, the strategic notification to the audience that there's a mine-shaft handily concealed downtown -- it just may come in handy, kids, but don't tell anybody I told you so! -- and a lot of cool-looking computers and charts and other gizmos, all of it largely meaningless.

Frankly, the movie could have used a little more exposition. Why do some volcanoes blow up like A-bombs and others just gush lava like broken '60s lamps? Never explained. What makes a volcano suddenly go active? Untouched. Can anything be done to prevent a volcano? Unexamined. Would a lake turn so acidic it could melt a boat? Sez so here, but I dunno.

The special effects that take over the last third of the picture are reasonably convincing, though sometimes the disintegrating buildings look a little tootsie-toy. But it's not just explosions and lava slides. The director, Roger Donaldson, who once made a good movie ("Under Fire"), puts his cast in the line of rolling fire and chronicles their hairbreadth escapes from falling trees, gushing lava, exploding walls, downed wires, raging rivers and so forth.

Oddly, the most intense of these ordeals by natural-world-gone-amok are the most intimate. Watching buildings blow and trees turn to cosmic dust is a kick, but when a convoy of National Guard Humvees races across a shaky bridge toward which a tsunami of melted glacier is blasting, it's first rate and terrifying. An even better (or worse, depending on your point of view) gag watches in claustrophobic queasiness as Brosnan is pinned in a truck that is rapidly imploding under rockfall pressure. The sound here is the killer: The reverberant crinkle of the sheet-metal as it gives under the strain and his space is halved, then quartered.

But while "Dante's Peak" works as spectacle, it just lies there as drama. That's because it's difficult to invest in the antagonists. You can hate the shark in "Jaws" because its threat is so personal; it wants to eat you with nasty teeth that look like rusted butcher knives. The mountain, on the other hand, just wants to burp and has no interest in the earthlings who've set up camp on its belly. I frequently want to burp, so how can I consider this evil?

"Dante's Peak."

Starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton.

Directed by Roger Donaldson.

Released by Universal.

PG-rated.

** 1/2

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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