Cinema review: To live and fry in Los Angeles

All you need is lava. As the buildings of Los Angeles crash and combust around the cast of Volcano (12), racist white cops learn to respect mouthy African Americans; a cutesy toddler surveys the survivors' ash- blacked faces and exclaims, "Look at their faces! They all look the same!" as redemptive rain pours down. If Michael Jackson had risen from the rubble, no one would have batted an eyelid. Geological catastrophe - well, it's a great leveller.

But before this Benetton-ad multiculturalism kicks in, director Mick Jackson (no relation) wants to play Yahweh. Seventies disaster movies like Airport and The Towering Inferno preached against over-reliance on technology, but Volcano takes on grander, more Old Testament themes. In fact, Jackson's film is an act of blistering retribution. He opens by cross-cutting shots of bubbling subterranean magma with inane images of LA life, parading Marlboro billboards, smart cars and grinning body- builders. He forces us to eavesdrop on the media's moronic inferno: evangelist radio stations, ads for psychic financial advice, MTV. By hatching a geological apocalypse downtown, he's delivering a ritual punishment on the city for its moral turpitude. This film comes from the director who made LA Story.

Jackson's prophet-heroes are fire chief Tommy Lee Jones and seismologist Ann Heche. Heche - whose appearance gives new meaning to the expression "ash blonde" - blames the builders of a new subway for unleashing these element forces. "This city's finally paying for its arrogance," she pronounces. Since we've already seen that Stan Olber (John Carroll Lynch) and his gang of workmen run a sweepstake on the location of minor earthquake epicentres, we know they're the villains. Gordon makes them pay for it, sending Stan to his death in a pit of lava - into which he descends like a figure from one of the Bosch paintings we see herded out of an art gallery.

Like a lot of recent films (Contact, Albino Alligator, Air Force One), Volcano uses media coverage of the plot's events as a substitute for more subtle storytelling techniques. Jackson has recruited 45 real-life TV reporters to lend his film some veracity, as though his audience won't willingly suspend their disbelief unless they're given CNN interviews with the dramatis personae. This also releases screenwriter Jerome Armstrong from writing convincing explicatory dialogue. He's not up to it: it's an awkward moment, for instance, when Jones tell Heche he's never heard of magma. So for the most part, Volcano delegates explanation to its journalists, on hand to give a running commentary on the film's fiery digital spectacles. Even the Emergency Management command post has a huge TV screen which relays breaking news from CNN.

In the first reel, Jackson shows us a pair of news anchors feeling the effects of a minor quake. Later, with downtown under lava, they seem completely unharmed. So the media's status as guarantor of the film's realism is undermined. When the first eruptions begin, we see lights black out all over LA. Later, we're told that only half the city's power has been knocked out. But if the emergency HQ has switched to back-up generators, who's powering the local media, and who's watching?

Jackson is also unable to be consistent about the temperature of lava. It melts a Range Rover like a toffee on a hot plate, but a bus is an effective temporary bulwark against its flow. The script is oddly inconsistent about the effects of lava on shoes, metal and flesh. Tommy Lee Jones, however, clearly has a higher melting point than any of these materials. He's a walking imperium of Rushmore granite; dogs, widows and orphans all enjoy his steadfast protection. His monstrous, craggy head looks as if it's been chiselled from some Pre-Cambrian stratum, and even his character's name - Mike Roark - has a stony immutability. Or, as executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner puts it in the press release: "There's such security in his essence." Absolutely.

The titular star of Jackie Chan's First Striker (12) provides his audience with no such easy reassurance. In a post-Cold War narrative that makes even less sense than Elton John's "Nikita" video, our man Chan defies belief with his astounding physical dexterity, defies comprehension with his wobbly grasp of English diphthongs, and dederpants and penguin suit. Unlike the overblown humourless of Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal, Chan has an irresistibly sympathetic comic touch, through which he stakes his claim to the tradition of Keaton and Lloyd. Despite having one of the world's worst haircuts, he's one of the current cinema's most inventive performers.

Booty Call (18) is an African American version of the old-fashioned British sex farce, and its utter shamelessness is very winning. It cheerfully redeploys stereotypes banned from our screens shortly after the last series of Mind Your Language: a predatory gay Chinese waiter called Ug Lee, a pair of noddy-dog Punjabi shopkeepers straight out of Carry on Up the Khyber, and a barrage of jokes bluer than Michael Portillo's bikini briefs. (Interestingly, the only white character we see is a crack addict attempting to rob a 24-hour convenience store.) Much of the script is irredeemably filthy: in one scene, Bunz, a putative Lothario (Jamie Foxx), crawls under the card table, and when the dog sticks its tongue up his bottom, he thinks this is his blind date Lysterine (Vivica A Fox) paying him a compliment. British attempts at this sort of thing were products of the "permissive society", but the sexual misadventures of Bunz and friends deliver more sober safe-sex advice than a sheaf of government leaflets. Medical facts are slipped into the plot in the way that agricultural details are woven into The Archers. We are warned off lambskin condoms, urged to use clingfilm as a dental dam, and shown how to negotiate sexual guidelines that Terry Scott and Brian Rix never had to worry about. Laugh? I'm afraid I did. Rather a lot. Sorry.

Watching Harvey Keitel play broad comedy is like watching a sea slug play the harmonica - nature simply didn't intend it. For the first half of Jim Wilson's Head Above Water (15), the king of the B-movie hardcases smiles a weird, three-toothed smile, far more unsettling than anything he did in Bad Lieutenant. The effort required to hold his neglected facial muscles in this unfamiliar position turns his performance into a kind of highly-paid somnambulism. As for the rest of the film, it feels like an improbable thriller to which somebody has appended a sense of humour. It's Cape Fear as screwball comedy, and as odd and uneven as that sounds. But the concluding half-hour is triumphantly, uproariously sick. And cinemagoers whose idea of a good time is Cameron Diaz reined into a bikini will emerge flushed and undisappointed. Here, it's custard-coloured.

Latin Boys Go to Hell (no cert) is soft, kitschy art-house porn, in which closeted Justin (Irwin Ossa) falls in love with his straight cousin (John Bryant Davilla), but gets seduced by the heartless Carlos (Mike Ruiz), who in turn is castrated by jealous ex-lover Braulio (Alexi Artiles). If that sounds like a trashy soap storyline, there's a reason: Justin and Braulio spend most of their time glued to Latino TV melodrama. Ela Troyano's film has a certain seedy energy, but didn't convince me that it had anything more going on its head than daytime schlock.

Finally, Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel gets a welcome re-release, and proves that its Expressionist monstrosity and experimental use of sound is as remarkable as the presence of that intoxicating Marlene magic. As cabaret singer Lola-Lola, Dietrich is an icon of butch sleaze, graced with the voice of an ashtray that's been up all night, but who still wants to show you a good time. Whether you can help it or not, you'll be falling in love again.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

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