In the ranks of underrated action adventure movies of the 80’s, surely no other movie containing acts of rousing darring do deserves more modern column inches than Romancing The Stone, but it seems to be destined to be marginalised despite the fact that it may be one of the most solid movies ever made.
Finding itself in the genre of movies trying to harness the superhuman powers of Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, which updated the roguish heroes of the old timey serials of the 20’s, Romancing The Stone managed to find it’s own particular jungle trail while skillfullu avoiding the traps and pitfalls that afflicted such other attempts like Canon’s goofy King Solomon’s Mines that lurged drunkenly onto screens the year after.
So what makes Stone so different, and why do I have such a raging mad-on for this movie?
Well, grab your map, make your high heels practical and join me on a trip to the darkest jungles of Colombia to find out…
Lonely romance novelist Joan Wilder has finished her latest blouse-strainer, a steamy western where women can protect themselves with a handy throwing knife tucked into her garter but they still need a mysterious hunk to bail them out of trouble at the end. However, putting a halt to her celebrations is the fact that her sister has been kidnapped in Colombia by shifty smugglers Ralph and and the crocodile obsessed Ira (“Look at those snappers, willya?”) who are holding her to ransom for a treasure map mailed to Joan for safekeeping.
So the hideously unprepared Joan hops on a plane to Colombia to meet the kidnappers but immediately gets on a bus going the wrong way thanks to Zolo, a sadistic Colonel who also wants the map in order to find the treasure it leads to. Stranded literally in the middle of a hostile jungle that would even make the Predator rethink his latest getaway trip, Joan is eventually saved by Jack T. Colton, a shotgun wielding scoundrel who’s desperately trying to save money by any means so he can achieve his dream of buying a boat a sailing off around to world. Agreeing to get Joan back to where she’s supposed to be for a chunk of dough, Jack attitude (not to mention everything about him) initially offends Joan as his personalitt essentially is the polar opposite of the idealized wish fulfilment she usually puts in her books, but after numerous run ins with Zolo’s private army the two inevitably start to bond and decide that instead of handing over the map, they’ll instead go for the treasure instead themselves in order to have more to bargin with.
However, despite Zolo being hot on their trail and a put-upon Ralph trying to shadow their every move, the biggest problem may be the notoriously mercenary Jack himself. Is his really trying to help Joan get her sister back or is he just playing the hero while he’s playing at romancing the stone? See what I did there?
Essentially the third film of a pre-Back To The Future, pre-Roger Rabbit, pre-Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis who used it’s unexpected success (parent studio Fox was expecting it to bomb harder than the blitz to the point that they actually fired the director from Cocoon) to ascend to Spielbergian levels of filmmaking that he’s kind of lost his touch for in the latter stages of his career. However, Zemeckis grabs the offbeat script and mines the fact that it’s so different from all the other Indiana Jones clones (Indiana Clones?) for all he’s worth. For a start, the main character is a woman (just like the scriptwriter) who is thrown into this non-stop adventure of flesh crunching crocodiles and plunging waterfalls against her will and while there’s the requisite amount of tutting and head shaking on Colton’s part as this shivering female insists on wearing italian heels on a dirt trail and has no idea how to cut a path with machete, it honestly doesn’t actually feel like a cheap shot at woman-kind for being “weak” but more like a rugged sneer at puny, pampered city folk no matter their gender.
The movie doubles down on this by having Wilder usually be the one (admittedly often by sheer coincidence) to get the pair out of most of their scrapes when Jack’s poorly planned heroics don’t pay off – either swinging across a gorge and not dying by bloody good fortune or gaining the friendship of a drug baron when they mutually discover he’s a massive fan of her books.
It’s this rug pulling that keeps Romancing The Stone way ahead of it’s peers and in addition to it’s fun, breezy script and a perky score by a pre-Back To The Future, pre-Predator, pre-Avengers Alan Silvestri, the movie obtains true magnificence thanks to it’s three leads who can keep all the balls of drama, action and comedy in the air as naturally as a three-armed juggler. Kathleen Turner makes Joan’s journey from sheltered singleton to a more confident woman via fighting for her life in the jungle seem natural without once turning her into a macho version of herself that wouldn’t ring true and while it’s initially very strange watching Gordon Gekko shoot guns, swing on vines and seductively shake his hips on the dance floor, Michael Douglas makes a great, sarcastic adventurer who is legitimately charming despite the fact he’s amusingly (and deliberately) removed from the final battle Jack Burton style by being a bit of a twat and allowing his continued quest to nab the treasure distract him from the fact that Joan is in mortal danger even though the jewel at this point is lodged in the digestive tract of a crocodile. The third piece of the acting puzzle is filled by Danny Devito as Ralph, giving possibly one of his finest scumbag performances in a career positively littered with them as he absorbs comedy punishment and spits out one liners like some kind of squat, villainous fruit machine.
Admittedly the movie’s view of Colombians isn’t what you’d call balanced with the entirety of the non-white cast portrayed either as the type of peasants who carry pigs and chickens with them on a bus ride or as switchblade carrying psychos – even the benevolent Juan who aids our heroes with the high powered jeep dubbed “Pepe” is still a mahoosive drug dealer and probably would have had them killed if he wasn’t such an avid reader of Joan’s horny hardbacks.
That being said, the mixture of humour, brains and some surprising nasty action (the deploying of a crocodile as an offensive weapon is magnificent) means this extraordinarily well put together romp is a fantastic example of meat and potatoes filmmaking with it’s direction, script and acting creating a hugely entertaining adventure that confidently stands on it’s own two feet as it stands knee deep in rainforest mud while wearing high heels.