'80s adventure films, 1980s films, action-adventure, action-comedies, adventures, Alan Silvestri, auteur theory, Back to the Future, blockbusters, cinema, damsel-in-distress, Danny Devito, Dean Cundey, Diane Thomas, Film auteurs, film franchise, film reviews, films, Forrest Gump, jungles, Kathleen Turner, kidnapping, Manuel Ojeda, Mary Ellen Trainor, Michael Douglas, Movies, odd couple, priceless jewels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ransom, Robert Zemeckis, romance writer, romances, Romancing the Stone, stolen treasure, The African Queen, The Jewel of the Nile, treasure map, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Zack Norman
What, exactly, would you get if you were able to somehow crossbreed John Huston’s indelible The African Queen (1951) with Spielucas’ (patent pending) Raiders of the Lost Art (1981)? If you performed this bit of alchemy nowadays, I’m guessing that you’d probably end up with something that bore a pretty close resemblance to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or its ilk. If you did this back in the ’80s, however, it’s pretty much a given that you’d come up with Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984). Equal parts odd-couple romance and globetrotting adventure yarn, Romancing the Stone is the box-office blockbuster that, effectively, kicked off Zemeckis’ career, directly leading to some little indie film about race cars called Back to the Future (1985). As they say: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step…for Zemeckis (Used Cars (1980) notwithstanding), that journey began right here.
Best-selling romance writer, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner, in only her third full-length film), may write about passionate, sexy, self-assured and ass-kicking heroines but life definitely doesn’t seem to be imitating art: in reality, Joan is meek, nerdy, awkward and chronically single, spending her days with her cat (Romeo, natch) while she waits for the flesh-and-blood version of her hunky leading man, Jesse, to swirl into her life and spirit her away to fun, adventure and love.
Adventure (albeit of the less than desired kind) makes its way into Joan’s life after she receives word that her sister, Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor), has been kidnapped by miscreants (Zach Norman and Danny DeVito) in Columbia. The kidnappers demand that Joan head to South America and bring the treasure map that Elaine mailed to her, a map which purports to show the location of a fabled, priceless jewel. When Joan gets to Columbia, she immediately finds herself pursued by the sinister, murderous Zolo (Manuel Ojeda), a corrupt military leader who will stop at nothing to acquire the jewel.
Just as things look grim, Joan is saved by mysterious, handsome and wise-cracking Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), an American ex-pat adventurer who could, quite literally, be the very personification of Joan’s beloved “Jesse.” Jack spirits Joan away and she enlists his aid in rescuing her captive sister. As the kidnappers decide to take matters into their hands and pursue Jack and Joan, our heroes must also out-maneuver Zolo and his men, who are never far behind. Will Joan finally find her knight-in-shining-armor? Will Jack be able to put aside his more avaricious impulses and inherent dislike of Joan’s needy, city-slicker ways long enough to fall in love with her? Will our plucky heroes succeed in finding their massive emerald or will the jungle serve as their final resting place?
In many ways, Romancing the Stone is a prototypical ’80s adventure film: bright, silly, full of decidedly antiquated notions on gender politics (Joan is never much more than a hapless damsel-in-distress and Jack is often so macho as to become completely cartoonish), lots of engaging setpieces (Joan and Jack’s tumble down the river rapids is an easy highlight, as is the evocative bit where they stumble upon the treasure, complete with a skeleton in a crashed plane) and as little common sense as necessary to propel the storyline to its designated conclusion.
What really helps to vault Romancing the Stone above the competition (aside from the involvement of adventure auteur Zemeckis) is the stellar performances and chemistry of the three principals. Romancing the Stone would be Douglas’ first major foray into blockbuster entertainment (although some might argue that The China Syndrome (1979) really got the ball rolling for him after the success of The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1976)) and the role fits him like a glove. By turns smarmy, sly, genuine, put-upon and roguish, Douglas’ Jack Colton is the dictionary definition of a kickass “antihero” and definitely deserves his place in the action flick roll books. For her part, Turner is outstanding: never less than imminently likable and empathetic, Joan Wilder is a real hoot and Turner has a blast bringing her to cinematic life. Douglas and Turner have tremendous chemistry throughout, recalling nothing so less as Bogie and Hepburn’s performances in the aforementioned African Queen: any of their scenes together are smooth sailing but the parts where they lock horns, like stubborn rams, are pretty unforgettable.
On the villain side, DeVito (as usual) is an absolute scene-stealer: the bit where he wrestles with the extremely tall lady is a complete riot and his interactions with the dastardly Zolo hint at the sarcasm-etched wrecking ball that the future Frank Reynolds would become. Here, we get DeVito just as he was transitioning from the small-screen madness of Taxi (1978-1983) into his unforgettable big screen career. While there’s way too little of DeVito in Romancing the Stone, the producers rectified this by bringing DeVito, Douglas and Turner back for a sequel, The Jewel of the Nile (1985), that featured quite a bit more screen-time for good ol’ Ralph. Years later, the principals would once again reunite when DeVito directed Douglas and Turner in the absolutely essential The War of the Roses (1989), a re-teaming which managed to frame the earlier relationships in an entirely different light.
Silly, cute and lots of fun, Romancing the Stone is the kind of breezy entertainment that’s perfect for lazy weekend viewing: while it’s far from amazing (or even particularly original), Zemeckis’ romantic adventure is a perfect example of what made ’80s films so great. For younger generations, the film stands as a perfect example of a simpler, more innocent time, a time when comic book entertainment was still pulpy, goofy fun. In an era where heroes spend an awful lot of time frowning, Romancing the Stone reminds us that this wasn’t always the case: as far as I’m concerned, our modern era could use a little more Jack and Joan. After all: smiling is pretty good exercise, too.