A sequel to 1981’s mega-smash serial adventure epic Raiders of the Lost Ark was inevitable, and in 1984 it was released in the form of pulpy, inconsistent, and inappropriately gruesome Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But also in 1984, equally indebted (or beholden) to Raiders, and certainly competing for its level of unbridled fun in the jungle was Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone. The first and only script written by Diane Thomas who was killed in a car accident a year after her hit film was released, Romancing’s method, tone, and demeanor embody the pitch “Raiders, but contemporary” (and in fact Thomas had spent some time working on a draft of an actual Raiders follow up).
The contemporary part is what makes Romancing the Stone such 80’s gold. The 80’s loved a good light romantic comedy adventure with an edge almost as much as a stirring power ballad, and Romancing the Stone struck the perfect balance. Between Michael Douglas’ mullet, a synthesizer heavy score, and Kathleen Turner shining in her blink and you missed it prime, Zemeckis’ movie is truly time capsule worthy.
Thomas’ story is best when setting up the playfully artificial Indian Jones moments as opposed to actually executing them. Turner plays Joan Wilder, a lonely, hopeless romantic who expresses her desire for a noble man and a fantastic voyage through her internationally bestselling novels. On the verge of releasing another heart-swelling page turner, the soft, sensitive Wilder gets wrapped up in fortune hunter intrigue, murder, and mayhem straight out of her own fiction when her sister becomes a hostage in Columbia and Wilder is asked by the kidnappers to bring a treasure map to the corrupt, treacherous country or the sister dies. From there, a series of lucky accidents brings Wilder into the company of Douglas’ Jack T. Colton, an American thrill seeker with a keen survival instinct, a loner’s mentality, and one hell of a winning smile. Not precisely the man of Wilder’s dreams, but when you’re thirtysomething and your most intimate relationship is with your cat, a sturdy anti-hero who can ably handle a shotgun and a one-liner will do.
Naturally, she drags him into a situation he never expected, and the odd couple banter and eventual sparks that fly between Wilder and Colton (and perhaps between Douglas and Turner who made three rather memorable 80’s movies together in five years, including 1985’s The Jewel of the Nile, a far inferior sequel to Romancing the Stone) provides the heart and soul of the movie. Danny DeVito, who also tagged along in the subsequent Douglas/Turner capers, adds the requisite comic relief by combing a conniving, sinister agenda in a fast talking, physically amusing package.
Ironically enough, the weakest player on this team is an unripe Robert Zemeckis, arguably the most talented and ultimately successful participant. The same man who one year later would erupt with the phenomenal Back to the Future and then go on to direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, and What Lies Beneath among other splendid achievements, often loses focus in his sophomore effort. My guess is that he was too new to the game to push his artistic program without studio interference. Hence, interesting, well paced scenes like when Wilder and Colton spend the night burning marijuana to keep warm in a rotting fuselage in the jungle and bonding, are followed by inane, unintelligible moments seemingly edited with a machete where, for example, the unlikely duo slip behind a waterfall to collect the coveted treasure. Because the “chemistry” between the leads is so potent, the locale so lush, and the hang loose, good time 80’s vibe so vibrant, the audience will remember the Romancing experience very fondly without recalling that none of it made a lick of sense, nor did it care to.
The ludicrous final scene takes the cake. Although we are happy when Colton pulls up to Wilder’s apartment in a yacht wearing a fresh set of crocodile boots (get it!) to sweep her off her feet, as the credits role, our smile should fade just a bit as we realize that we've been had…80’s style.