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WHOLE LOTTA LAVA <br> A HOT TIME ON THE OLD COUCH TONIGHT

WITH THE end of the millennium creeping up on us, we are told that it's not unprecedented for an apocalypse-wary society to go a little cuckoo.

This effect is evidenced by our newly stoked interest in disaster flicks. The past two years have spawned innumerable big- and small-screen catastrophe movies portending all manner of doom, both foreign and domestic, including tornadoes, asteroids, city-leveling starships and the most prolific of the bunch, volcanoes.

This summer saw no fewer than three movie depictions of this King of All Disasters, one on TV and two at the multiplexes.

Erupting in theaters (I know. Kill me) at roughly the same time, "Volcano" had to fight Pierce Brosnan's "Dante's Peak" for the public's Judgment Day dollar, and by most accounts "Volcano" was the victor. If for no other reason than its audience-pleasing premise, that victory was deserved. The premise? A volcano appears from out of nowhere to gobble up Los Angeles! Never have I rooted so hard for molten rock.

Tommy Lee Jones headlines this exciting if predictable tale of man vs. magma. As the director of the Office of Emergency Management, Jones' Mike Roark is in charge of organizing all of L.A.'s resources to combat environmental threats, and he gets a humdinger dropped in his lap beginning when a public works crew emerges from the sewers looking like Chicken McNuggets.

From there the plot unfolds in precise Hollywood fashion. Roark wishes to proceed with caution but is overruled by the immovable transit authority chief. Enter a comely geologist played by Anne Heche, who is naturally the only one who knows that red-hot death is percolating beneath the La Brea tar pits, and who must convince the obstinate Roark of this fact. Plus, Roark is a single dad with a willful young daughter, and Lordy! We can all see where this is heading, can't we?

The upshot is that this setup is blissfully short. And when the volcano finally emerges, you definitely know that the movie has arrived. Meteoric "lava bombs" spit from the earth and destroy houses and fire engines while their liquid progeny flows unabated over Wilshire Boulevard. From here the movie becomes like the Blob on fire, with the unstoppable lava swallowing residences, sneaking up on people unaware and menacing small dogs.

This leads to no end of thrilling deaths and near-deaths. Then the movie's feel-good instincts kick in and we, the audience, face a new menace: warm, flowing treacle.

I'm not saying I mind a decent human-interest angle to take the edge off the horror, but this movie wields it like a cudgel. An elitist snob berating his doctor wife for treating the sundry injured is a dash of extreme overkill. Racist white cops and black smart-alecks fighting the lava and their prejudices? Yes, that's here, too.

There are some unexpected moments of less cloying nobility, such as a man immolating himself to save another by jumping feet first into lava. However, even these cannot negate the final bit of in-your-face community spirit delivered by a little boy who comments that people, black, white and beige, "all look the same" when covered with ash. This is so saccharine that diabetics had better fast-forward past it.

The acting is fine all around. Tommy Lee Jones is in his element as the take-change volcano buster. Heche is also good, if less interesting. She's playing Helen Hunt's brainy beauty role from "Twister" and doing no better or worse.

Anyway, this isn't a movie you see for the acting. The lava is the star, and it gives a four-star performance. It's a special-effects movie. Treat it as such.

Now, disaster movies are great, but before we became consumed with the fear of fiery death from below, weren't we afraid of fiery death from above, courtesy of that irrepressible Eastern Bloc? We sure were! And like a phoenix risen from our defunct Cold War fears of communist Russia, a shiny new apprehension has arrived: the fear of an unstable, democratized Russia!

Well, one good resurrection deserves another. So here comes "The Saint."

I'll grant that I am not familiar with the 1970s Roger Moore spy show that this film is based on, but I don't think it matters. Little besides the essential theme (a high-tech thief who operates under the names of various Catholic saints) has been translated. The plot and gadgets are all '90s, and the Saint himself is the only character not created for the movie.

Val Kilmer plays the titular hero, sometimes called Simon Templar when he isn't sporting a nom de guerre. He is an international superthief who earns seven-digit fees and spurts a host of gizmos you'll wish they would carry at the Sharper Image.

He is also a master of disguise, or so it is suggested. Most everyone in the movie seems able to penetrate his deceptions, even if catching the man remains a chore.

Elisabeth Shue plays the Saint's target. She's a naive yet brilliant electrochemist who is on the verge of unlocking the secrets to this decade's favorite pipe dream: "cold fusion," the hope for limitless cheap energy. The Saint's task: to woo the girl and steal the formula.

Awaiting said formula is Ivan Tretiak, a Russian politico who dreams of "a Russia not cut off at the knees, but armed to the teeth!" Did you guess that he's the bad guy?

Tretiak plans to use the secret to overthrow the Russian president, helpless in the face of a heating-oil crisis. However, the roguish Saint unexpectedly falls for the winsome scientist, leaving it up to Tretiak to take matters into his own hands. This leads to the usual gunfire and car chases as the Saint endeavors to rescue his lady love.

The real treat here is Kilmer's character, or rather characters, which he plays with relish. While no amount of makeup can well hide the actor's prominent features, his multitude of personas is pulled off with deft skill. He flits like a bee among flowers, from being an Australian burglar to a Spanish playboy to a German homosexual and more, with amusing results.

Shue plays her role of the beguiled, lovelorn genius with sympathy, and there is genuine sweetness in her romance with the shifty thief who is unprepared for the feelings his charade uncovers. A zingy musical score rounds out this movie's finer qualities.

Detracting from the film is the fact that the opening high-tech pizzazz trickles away to almost nothing by movie's end, culminating in an anticlimactic display of pyrotechnics in Red Square. OK, so it's more likable than a James Bond film, with a shade less cliche and a nibble more believability. Otherwise, it's well-trodden action-film terrain. However, next summer probably will bring a trifecta of movies concerning severe wind chill, making this rental look like high art.

VOLCANO 1997, PG-13, 104 minutes, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment (to be released Tuesday)
THE SAINT 1997, PG-13, 118 minutes, Paramount Home Video (in release)

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