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Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

Warner Archive Collection
Blu-ray Disc Released: 6/20/2017

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/20/2017

What is the deal with Tom Hanks? The man has been a movie star for over 30 years and has appeared in literally dozens of movies. He's won two Academy Awards and we have to assume that he's made a lot of money. So, why does he continue to work as hard as he does? He's 61-years old and still appears in several movies each year. Is he afraid to slow down? Does he have a mortgage? Now, he's an even more important question about Tom Hanks -- Why did he stop making comedies? The Toy Story movies aside, it's been decades since Hanks has made a straight-up comedy. Sure, he's been funny in some modern films, but look at his resume and it's one drama after another. I miss funny Tom Hanks. Which is why it was great to see one of his more obscure movies come to Blu-ray Disc with the release of Joe Versus the Volcano.

Joseph Banks (Tom Hanks) has a dead-end life. He works for a medical supply company sending out catalogs...although he's out of catalogs. The office is a nightmare and his boss (Dan Hedaya) is insane. Joseph never feels well, something he blames on the fluorescent lights at work. Things get even worse when his doctor (Robert Stack) informs Joseph that he has a "brain cloud" and only a few months to live. His life (or what's left of it) gets even stranger when Joseph is approached by Mr. Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), who gives Joseph an intriguing proposition -- He will get a lavish trip to a south Pacific island where he will them jump into a volcano in order to satisfy the natives so that Graynamore can harvest a precious mineral from the island. Feeling that he has nothing else to live for, Joseph accepts. He then finds himself on a wild adventure where, while dying, he will learn to finally live.

I actually saw Joe Versus the Volcano in the theater back in 1990 (yes, I'm old) and I remember finding it to be charming. And while it made money at the box office, it didn't do the usual Tom Hanks numbers and immediately faded into obscurity. I feel that I may have rented it on home video at some point after that, but unlike so many other movies, this one doesn't play on cable very often (if at all). I find this surprising for two reasons. Firstly, seeing this movie again for the first time in years, I can't believe that it hasn't become a cult movie. For 1990 Hollywood standards, this movie is weird. It plays like a Kafkaesque surreal nightmare meets a crazy fairy tale. From the outset, the movie only has one foot in the real world and the fact that it's aware of this makes it fun. Also, the movie is very quotable and I've been saying "I have no response to that." since the first time that I saw it.

The second reason that I'm surprised that we don't hear more from Joe Versus the Volcano is that this movie is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation. Millennials grew up watching bizarre and unusual shows and movies and I think that they would appreciate the decidedly different tone of the film. Also, the film's theme of abandoning a dead-end desk job in exchange for freedom would certainly speak to a generation which is growing more and more accustomed to jobs which don't tether one to a desk. (I watched it which my teenaged daughters and while they didn't love it, just were clearly into it.)

If nothing else, Joe Versus the Volcano is a well-made movie which isn't afraid to take some chances. Having won an Oscar for writing 1988's Moonstruck, it's not surprising that Writer/Director John Patrick Shanley would be given the chance to make his own movie. (And looking at it from today, knowing that he wrote the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Doubt, we really aren't surprised.) However, when one looks at the musical montages, the languid pace of the first act and the non-sensical third act, one realizes that we are watching a movie which is playing by its own rules. And its doing so using a stellar cast. In my synopsis, I didn't mention that we have Meg Ryan playing three different roles (what a great way to save money!), Abe Vigoda, Amanda Plummer, and Nathan Lane in an early cameo role. Is Joe Versus the Volcano for everyone? No. I can see many bailing out in the first fifteen minutes. But, if you stick with it, you will find a loopy movie which contains some funny moments, and you will see a writer showing that he has a pretty good visual eye with the ways in which the colors help tell the story. But, perhaps most importantly, you'll be taken back to a time when Tom Hanks was allowed to be funny.

Joe Versus the Volcano makes a good point about spending that extra money for good luggage on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Warner Archive Collection. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 37 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing on overt grain or defects from the source materials. Colors play a huge role in this film, and they look great here. The bright tones of the second and third acts work very well and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is notable and the depth is great, most notably during the scenes on the ocean. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.2 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. From the opening seconds of the movie, we hear that the music has real presence here, as it fills the speakers. Later scenes demonstrate a nice mixture of stereo and surround effects to detail sounds coming from off-screen. The storm sequence delivers a nice amount of bass rumble.

The Joe Versus the Volcano Blu-ray Disc contains just a few extras. "Behind the Scenes Featurette" (4 minutes) is a fairly standard early 90s EPK in which we get comments from Hanks, Ryan, and Shanley, along with some quick on-set shots. We get the MUSIC VIDEO for "Sixteen Tons" by Eric Burdon. The final extra is the TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long