Romancing the Stone (1984)
Dir. by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Manuel Ojeda
After her sister is kidnapped, successful yet timid romance author Joan Wilder must travel to Columbia with the ransom demand, a treasure map formerly belonging to her now-deceased brother-in-law. However multiple factions, including her brother-in-law’s killer, are all vying for the map, and Wilder finds herself in a romantic adventure of her own when a mysterious stranger convinces her to go after the treasure before anyone else can get it.
This one was one of my favorites as a teenager. I don’t recall the first time I saw it, but I watched it a bunch of times in high school and college. I’ve only seen it a couple of times in the last decade, however, so it still qualifies for this project.
Much like with The Beastmaster, Romancing the Stone is clearly a derivative work. In 1981, a little movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, and kicked off a wave of copycat adventure films set in exotic locales – including this one. However, I see the movie as actually belonging to a different genre, that of the pastiche. It’s a parody, though not in the modern sense of things like the Scary Movie franchise, which just throws up references to other movies at random and calls it a day. Instead, like many of the works of Edgar Wright, Romancing the Stone manages to both poke fun at a genre while being a top-notch entry in that genre. That’s probably why this movie has stood the test of time while other 80s adventure movies of its ilk have barely gotten a DVD release at all (Nate & Hayes, anyone?).
It helps that this movie kicked off the film careers of not one, but three of its stars. Yes, Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito had all been in movies before this, and the latter two had both starred in successful TV shows. But this is the movie that moved Douglas and Turner into superstar lead status, and proved that DeVito could make the transition from television to film comedian. Turner in particular is excellent here, believably selling her transformation from a meek writer, who can barely talk her way out of buying a toy from an aggressive street vendor, into a woman of action who jumps off waterfalls, swings across canyons and gets into knife fights with villains. It’s a shame that her career was cut short by illness, as she had the potential for a long run as a box office draw.
The majority of the film is set in Colombia, and features many of the standard south-of-the-border adventure stereotypes: small villages run by drug dealers, rogue military commanders in kepi hats, crowded public transit filled with livestock, etc. However, this never bothered me like I thought it might. It helps that 1) many of these tropes are common to fish-out-of-water romance stories, as if Wilder had stepped right into the pages of one of her own novels, and 2) these tropes get repeatedly subverted. The drug kingpin running the small town turns out to be an affable romance novel fan, and the random hotel that they wander into upon emerging from the jungle has a modern-by-80s-standards set of office equipment and staff that speaks English (much to Douglas’s surprise).
Most of the jokes in the film are at Turner’s expense, not the locals, as Joan Wilder is clearly a woman completely unprepared for any sort of travel at all, no matter what country she ended up in. On the whole, the only real unsympathetic characters are the two white kidnappers from Queens, and the military commander villain, who’s really there to be the replacement for the Nazis in this Raiders pastiche. At least he’s played by an actual Mexican actor (Manuel Ojeda), and not some white guy yet again.
On a technical level, while not quite up to Spielberg standards, Zemeckis here gives a preview of the sort of energy he would bring to Back to the Future a year later. There are multiple exciting chase and escape sequences, with plenty of real stunts performed live. Most notably among them are a swing across a canyon on vines, and a Jeep jumping a river during a chase scene using a radio-controlled ramp. Douglas’s costume manages to evoke the iconic look of Indiana Jones without being too much of a rip-off of it, and Danny DeVito’s does the same for Paul Freeman’s Belloq (a connection I never actually made until this most recent rewatch).
This review’s a little shorter than my other ones, but that’s because I found much less to complain about at-length. It might technically be a rip-off of Raiders, but it’s one of the few movies to actually earn that comparison. And it actually manages to one-up Raiders in one crucial category. For all of her whiskey-chugging brashness, Marion Ravenwood has to be rescued by Indy again and again. Joan Wilder actually manages to save Jack Colton multiple times, and is the one to defeat the bad guy in the end. Not bad for a romance novelist.
-Yes, there is a sequel to this movie, called Jewel of the Nile. No, pretty much nothing I’ve said about this film also applies to that one. I’ve only seen it once, when I was in 6th grade or thereabouts, and I’m pretty sure I thought it sucked even back then.
-The movie opens with a scene from one of Wilder’s western-set romance novels, and for years I knew the music as “the music from Romancing the Stone”, not as “the theme to the classic western How the West Was Won.”