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EMPIRE ESSAY: Romancing The Stone Review

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Joan Wilder, a writer of romantic novels, travels to south America to look for and rescue her kidnapped sister. She finds herself stranded in the jungles and finds help in the form of the soldier of fortune Jack Colton. The two go through a number of adventures, deal with various villains, and end up falling in love.

★★★★

A dizzy New York romance author dreams of action and adventure and an old-style rugged hero to whisk her away from her humdrum existence. As she delivers the latest of her books a mysterious treasure map turns up at her apartment, her sister is kidnapped and before she knows
what's happening she's slap bang in the middle of the South American jungle, pursued by shady villains and accompanied by a reluctant, though distinctly rugged, Michael Douglas.

Cue action, adventure and, inevitably, romance. It's implausible, dementedly silly and lightweight — pure Hollywood fluff. But spinning top quality Hollywood fluff is no easy task, as the cinematically challenged Golan-Globus/Cannon Films would find the next year when they attempted to leap on the bandwagon with the truly dire King Solomon's Mines.

Critics, of course, dismiss the film as a cheap Raiders rip-off. It certainly has more than a few similarities: the relentless action and arch genre trappings, corrupt cops, exotic locales, ancient maps and lost gemstones. And given the success of Spielberg's blockbuster it was obvious in 1984 that the public was in the mood for innocent, adventure escapism. In fact, the two movies are very different, not least in tone. While Spielberg shied away from all but the briefest love interests for Indy, concerned no doubt that his audience of 12 year-old boys was more up for hectic heroism than soppy smooching, Romancing The Stone puts sexual chemistry at the heart of the movie along with the snappily directed action. Both elements are in evidence from the outset as in a brilliantly constructed credit sequence we see Joan Wilder (Turner) both as she'd like to see herself — the feisty adventuress warding off black-hatted cowboys before being swept away by a shadowy stranger — and as she really is, a mousy novelist living alone in a tiny New York apartment with nothing but a cat and collection of booze miniatures.

Kathleen Turner is surprisingly effective as the introverted, shy scribe — especially surprising for audiences who had previously seen her as sex bomb Matty Walker in Body Heat three years earlier. She radiates charming nervousness while Douglas (who also produced) is the perfect foil for her initially timid, reluctant heroine. As pissed off exotic bird breeder Jack Colton, he's a distillation of every sweaty romantic hero from every pulp romance novel, but, initially at least, has none of the charm. "They were Italian," Wilder mourns as he hacks the heels off her shoes in the middle of the drenched Columbian jungle. "Now they're practical," he retorts. Inevitably the two begin to exchange "glances" and embark on the Hollywood ritual of falling in love (a scene when they get to know one another while smoking dope in a crashed plane is a standout). It should all be sentimental, predictable and mawkish, but thanks to deft performances the potential for saccharine over-indulgence is avoided and there's a humanity and ease to the relationship.

But the main plaudits must go to director Zemeckis and screenwriter Diane Thomas. Spielberg himself had spotted Zemeckis as a like-minded director way back in 1978 when he executive produced the young director's debut I Wanna Hold Your Hand. They worked together on the ill-fated comedy 1941 and, post Romancing, on Back To The Future which was produced by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment production company (Zemeckis would pay tribute to his mentor by naming the water taxi which carries Joan to her sister's kidnapper's lair The Orca, the name of the boat in Jaws).

The two share a populist sensibility and a flare for big screen action, but in Romancing The Stone Zemeckis demonstrates a capacity to realise the type of credible female characters that Spielberg has always struggled with. It shows an adroit, playful touch which inexplicably, would be replaced with the crass, occasionally offensive, sentimentality of Forrest Gump and Contact. Tragically, Diane Thomas would never follow up her immensly promising scripting debut. A few months after Romancing The Stone was released to tremendous reviews and huge box-office she was killed in a car accident. Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Koner showed none of her lightness of touch in 1995's lacklustre cash-in sequel The Jewel Of The Nile.

Romancing The Stone is fluff expertly wrought by a young director at the top of his form working with a screenplay that tragically, would be its author's first and last.