Monday, May 15, 2017

Romancing the Stone (1984)

We’re skipping 1983; Fox’s Mr. Mom is a bit too trivial, and To Be or Not To Be redundant as Mel Brooks is already represented. I would’ve considered Silkwood but it’s out of print on DVD, and so we’re up to 1984, and my selection from that year is obvious: Romancing the Stone.

I mean, c’mon! This absolutely needs to be in this collection – it was a commercial ad critical huge hit, spawned a sequel the following year, kickstarted the careers of stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny Devito and director Robert Zemeckis, and was just simply a freaking entertaining movie! Easily a classic in every sense of the word.

But it didn’t start out that way. It all began when Michael Douglas, who, despite having received lead billing in several films from 1978 to 1983 but was never a major movie star, was approached by a waitress at a café in Los Angeles. Her name was Diane Thomas, an aspiring screenwriter with just one script under her belt, but when she showed it to Douglas, he just knew had to make it. He and Columbia pictures bought it, but when they got cold feet, he took it to Fox, where it would be helmed by a neophyte director by the name of Robert Zemeckis.

But Fox was nervous, and with no real stars, a green-lit budget of 10 million but steadily rising due to remote location shoots in Mexico, an untried director and the worst movie title in Hollywood history, they soon lost all faith in the project. Zemeckis was fired from his next Fox assignment, Cocoon, and their accountants were all set t write it off as a colossal bomb.

But it wasn’t, even though they dumped it for a March release – word of mouth made it the must-see film of that spring. (Back then, movies had staying power; it played in theaters all the way up through the summer.) I remember seeing it for the first time at the Depford Mall – loving it, clearly, and responding, I think to its freshness; it was an old-fashioned, serial inspired adventure film, sure, but it looked crisp and vibrant, with a cool-jazz, modern-sounding score, and an exotic up-to-date setting of drug-war-ravaged South America. I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t get me wrong, but Romancing felt more adult to me, with more mature concepts and themes, still then a distant concept but one for which I had an insatiable curiosity. I saw it as second time, with my mother, and, as I expected she loved it too. It sort of validated my own appreciation of it.

And, in keeping with the early 80s, it was all filtered through a female sensibility, specifically, that of Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), Stone’s protagonist. She’s a best-selling adventure-romance novelist, desperately wishing her real life could match her fantastical exploits, until one day she gets a call from a Colombian druglord, Ira.  He, and his henchman, Ralph (Danny DeVito), is holding her sister for ransom, demanding the map that was sent to her by sister’s now-dead husband. Off she goes to the Amazonian rainforests, carting along the map but unaware that a far more sinister threat is on her trail: Zolo, the bloodthirsty head of a local militia, the one responsible for her brother-in-law’s murder. Zolo successfully sidetracks her from Ira by mismarking her bus, and soon she is stranded in the jungle.

Zolo almost gets the map, but along comes an American ne’er do well, a lone mercenary named Jack Colton (Douglas), whose recent livelihood of bird-raising has just gone kaput. He accepts her offer of $375 to direct her to a phone, a well-earned sum considering he now has to evade two parties after Joan’s coveted map. But Jack may be considering finding the map’s treasure first, before anyone – after all, he can use the priceless gem to fulfill his dream of sailing around the world. When Joan learns of the plan, he convinces her that it would make a great bargaining chip for her sister’s life, but she (and we) isn’t so sure, particularly after Jack separates from her with the jewel in his possession. Joan brings the map to the kidnappers, she and sis are free to go, but Zolo has already gotten to Jack, demanding the goods (Jack, apparently, was good to his word). But when the renegade general clutches the gem in the grubby little palm of his hands, an even hungrier crocodile rips that hand (and jewel) right off, and it’s just a matter of time before the rest of Zolo is fed to those reptilian maneaters. Back at home, Joan uses the experience for her newest bestseller, but longs to see Jack again. Conveniently, on the city street, she finds her long-lost beloved, with his boat, bought by the gem he retrieved, and they “sail” down 5th Avenue together.

I literally hadn’t seen the film in 32-odd years since seeing it now, and it holds up remarkably well. The reasons for its freshness back then – updated adventurism, coolly adult tone – are what make its so resonant (and nostalgic) nowadays. At the time, some critics called it derivative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but its screenplay was actually written before that film’s release. And despite their comradeship, I don’t think Zemeckis had Spielberg’s classic on his radar – Stone is actually more akin to The African Queen than The Perils of Pauline, and all the other serials that are Raiders’ inspiration. Its focus is more on the est of female longing – the possibility that the Harlequin dream can co-exist in the nascent era of female empowerment.

And somehow, Douglass made it fresh, too. His Jack Colton is a loner, a not-entirely-chivalrous hero but not really Steve McQueen either. He has a sensitive side to him, but that may yet be his fault. Thereafter, Douglass made a career of playing the confused, postfeminist male – working between concepts of manhood and masculinity, and the ever-increasing hegemony of the female presence in society, for better or worse (usually worse). Turner, too paved her own archetype too: the mousy turned stalwart adventure heroine, and one which she herself would mine in future roles as well.

My only complaint: the ending. It sort of squeaks by, given the fairy-tale tone, but it feels all too easy – maybe the hint that she’ll meet up with him someday, or should it take place long after her Colton-inspired book? Again, it’s all in the tone – same reason Pretty Woman’s uber-happy ending worked too.
But it’s a nitpick. This is grand-slam entertainment of the highest order. A favorite from my childhood, and a classic for the ages.

Rating:  ****

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