Romancing the Stone’s biggest problem is that its opening is too good. It oversells itself. It suggests a meta-romance and an adventure so cartoonishly juicy that the more formulaic story that follows is a letdown. But only a minor letdown. Because, though Romancing the Stone is not quite as intelligent or decadent as its intro suggests, it’s still an immensely enjoyable slice of romantic adventure, filled with swashbuckling set pieces and sexual tension.
The film opens with the end of a trashy romance novel come to life, narrated by Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), a wildly popular romance novelist, only for us to learn that she’s really a fusty homebody who has no love life or adventure instincts of her own. Her friends and colleagues suggest she needs to put herself out there a bit more, but she insists that it needs to be like her novels — she’s waiting for a heroic Mr. Right to cross her path.
This is all filmed so well by Robert Zemeckis and cinematographer Dean Cundey, I was expecting the rest of the movie to toy with the gap between her theoretical romance/adventure experience and her (total lack of) practical romance/adventure experience. But once the film’s adventure kicks into gear, these character points are shoved to the background — it colors what we know about Joan but doesn’t drive the story except for a couple of moments.
In short order, Joan learns that her sister’s been kidnapped, and she receives a treasure map that can be used as ransom payment to recover her sister. She takes a flight to Colombia where she learns there’s both a corrupt police force and a pair of smugglers chasing after her. Zemeckis could just have well named the country Exotica instead of Colombia, is it’s caricatured third-world banana republic containing lots of nondescript brown-skinned extras. But it proves an exciting setting for the rest of the film.
Shortly after arriving, Joan finally crosses path with that lover she dreamed of: Jack Colton (Michael Douglas). He’s every bit the daring, sexy maverick that she dreamed of, though there are a few hints that he’s more brusque and gritty than Joan was expecting — I frankly wish the movie had leaned into making Jack either more grimy or more larger-than-life and dashing, as this middle ground is a bit unsatisfying.
The rest of the movie takes Joan and Jack on a race to find the treasure at the end of the map before they’re caught by either of the antagonizing forces chasing them down, which includes Ralph (Danny DeVito) following on their heels. Some of the on-location set pieces are tons of fun — there’s a vine swing over a rickety bridge, and a snake decapitation, and an absolutely wild finale that involves a crocodile biting off a villain’s hand. It’s all in the spirit of a lightweight Indiana Jones without taking too many specific cues from the great adventure film series of the era. Zemeckis does a formidable Steven Spielberg impersonation, but Zemeckis applies a bit more madcap cartoon energy (and certainly more horniness).
In addition to a big jungle quest, it’s a romance story — one that’s filled with erotic charge from its charismatic leads. Michael Douglas radiates so much pre-AIDS womanizing sexual energy that it almost makes me uncomfortable to watch. And Turner is his perfect foil, projecting some gentle femininity but also raw passion at the right moments. Their stares are scintillating, and they’re great on screen together.
It’s a formulaic story, but pretty rock-solid and tightly-paced. I was surprised when the movie hit its climax, both because the time had flown quickly and because the story felt a little bit slight. It’s a textbook piece of genre writing, but sadly the only major film credit that screenwriter Diane Thomas would get before a drunk driving accident took her life.
Much of the credit goes to Zemeckis, working on a screenplay that’s not a Bob Gale creation for the first time. This isn’t quite Back to the Future, but it’s still polished and energetic and tight, fitting together as a whole with consistently modulated tension. You can see the Zemeckis identity starting to form: An impeccable craftsman who loves high concept, high-energy adventures. The technical SFX experimentation would come in his next few films.
Composer Alan Silvestri, in his first of many contributions to Zemeckis films, pens a chintzy score that reeks of the mid-80s, lending heavily to the film feeling so deeply of its era. (Compare that to Spielberg-John Williams partnerships which always feel more timeless.)
I do wish Zemeckis and Thomas had leaned even more into the high concept of a “romance author bumbles through real-life adventure” with a little more zeal, but Romancing the Stone is a damn fun time regardless.
- Review Project: Robert Zemeckis Retrospective