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Talk about a movie that changed a lot, Romancing the Stone was it, a big, sexy, action adventure where all the planets aligned, delivering huge entertainment but also proving a newcomer director was about go big, a veteran star still had legs, and fresh face was ready to go mainstream. This is a great movie.
Just one year before creating one of the most successful film franchises in cinema history, director Robert Zemeckis delivered an homage of sort to old serial adventure films in this classic tale of far away romance and danger. Back to the Future would soon eclipse that effort of course, and these two movies couldn’t be more different from each other, but if there is anything that connects them, it’s Zemeckis’ high-energy and great sense of comedic timing mixed with convincing drama that ties the knot. While Back to the Future garnered far bigger box office numbers, Romancing the Stone remains a sensational movie experience, and the very reason Zemeckis got that gig in the first place.
THE STORY: Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is a romance novelist living in New York City whose books feature dashing heroes and sultry women. Awash in her fiction, she longs for a life like her characters, and it isn’t long before that very opportunity lands in her lap. She gets a call from her sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor). Seems she’s been kidnapped by antiquities smugglers, a couple of slimy cousins named Ira (Zack Norman) and Ralph (Danny DeVito). She’s also received an envelope from her murdered brother-in-law, containing a strange map, which turns out to be the ransom Elaine’s kidnappers want.
She flies to Colombia and by a series of troubling purposeful circumstances, ends up lost in the jungles with an American exotic bird smuggler named Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). The two make a deal to help each other, him obviously motivated by whatever lies at the end of that map, and of course, a beautiful woman. Naturally, this means lots of pratfalls and sexual tension, but in the best way possible.
Zemeckis, especially in his early films, has always been good with letting his characters stay in the foreground, and here, without what would be become his dependency on game-changing CGI visual effects in later films, keeps a surprisingly strong sense of authenticity to it all. But it’s the wild charms of Turner and Douglas that really have the payoff, the two endlessly fun to watch. It’s why they got together two more times, with a sequel called The Jewel of the Nile and a black comedy called The War of the Roses.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: First of all, how about that opening? Setting the tone right off, we see a gorgeous, near nude blonde woman glistening with sweat as she faces off a vile Western henchman looking to take advantage. What it all turns out to be is pretty clever as it sets up who Joan Wilder is and both what her talents are and what she longs to have.
That said, for the time, the film is pretty progressive for a mainstream movie with a female co-lead. Turner established herself early in her debut Body Heat (1981) as a woman of great independence and here, while the film playful toys with the conventions of a damsel in distress, Wilder’s arc is a powerful one, never letting Colton keep her feeling needy as she braves her way through the jungles, and up against one nasty bad guy after another. Turner is the heart of the film, and she steals every scene she’s in, the fish out of water who becomes a shark on land.
A GREAT MOMENT: The film depends on the relationship of Wilder and Colton and like anything, first impressions matter most and this first impression is a smash. Literally. When a Colombian bus Wilder in on crashes into a Colton’s jeep on a muddy isolated road in the mountains far from where she needs to be, an altercation leaves only her and him alone in the aftermath.
She is a city girl, not dressed or prepared for where is and he is more than a little irked as the accident has freed the exotic birds he’d captured, spoiling his chances to pay for his dream sailboat. The two are not compatible, as any good screenplay demands in such circumstances, yet there is a spark about them already and their back forth here is sharp, not to mention just plain fun.
Sure, Douglas is leaning on the Indiana Jones angle pretty heavily, with his fedora and macho charms, but it’s forgivable, and honestly, kinda good-natured and more than a little fitting. I like how he’s not an altruistic guy, looking to make a buck, even to save a young woman in trouble. Pay attention to the writing here and both Turner and Douglas’ delivery. The timing is great and in a film that relies on action to propel it forward, it’s moments like this when the characters take the reigns and the film satisfies most.
THE TALLY: Romancing The Stone is a thoroughly enjoyable distraction, a well-written (by Diane Thomas) and well-directed adventure that despite a few trappings that peg it in the era it was made, keep it a timeless bit of fun. It’s what to watch.