Romancing the Stone was a big deal back in 1984. It saw producer and star Michael Douglas try his hand at a broad action-adventure film, clearly riffing upon the success of the Indiana Jones films. It marked the commercial breakout of director Robert Zemeckis, leading to subsequent hits like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Contact. In a particularly competitive year, which included such hits as Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Romancing the Stone came out the eighth highest-grossing film in North America.
Kathleen Turner plays Joan Wilder, a romance novelist who rushes to Colombia to rescue her kidnapped sister – only to find herself lost in the South American jungle with rogue Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) and on the hunt for a priceless hidden gemstone.
While Michael Douglas may be the nominal star of the film, it is ultimately Kathleen Turner’s movie. She benefits from a wonderfully funny screenplay by Diane Thomas, and grabs her character with palpable enthusiasm. Wilder is a classic fish-out-of-water character, but the film gives her a frantic sort of panicky courage as she gets chased fown, shot at, and threatened with being fed to alligators. When film fans recollect the great action heroines of the 1980s – Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia, Sarah Connor – it is unfair that they more often than not forget about poor Joan Wilder.
There is a self-awareness to Wilder’s predicament that also gives the movie an extra layer of entertainment. She writes romantic adventure stories for a living, and of course falls right into one in real life. Her rescuer and companion Jack Colton is a thinly drawn caricature. Douglas plays him well, but there is not any real depth provided here. It is clearly Douglas’ attempt at playing an Indiana Jones-style adventurer, but without any distinctive character notes it simply comes across as pleasing but transparent. Douglas is captured at a mid-point in his career, shifting from acclaimed dramas to commercial hits in a move that typifies his role choices for the next decade or so. He is far from his best here, but simultaneously is at his most charming. Danny DeVito has a small but funny role as an antiquities smuggler named Ralph. While entertaining when on-screen he is under-served by the script.
Every other character is either a plot cypher or a mildly racist caricature. Colombia is portrayed as a lawless jungle of machete-wielding thugs and gun-toting criminals, which dates the film faster than it possibly deserves. The narrative is flimsy and fails to capture the old-time adventure tropes that Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980) achieved with such elan. Douglas’ character emerges a little too obviously as a white saviour in a country of threatening brown people; those of us who saw the film upon original release will probably cut it some slack for that – it is almost 40 years old – but viewers coming to the film fresh will find it rather egregious.
Ultimately the shortcomings do not seem to matter so much. Turner and Douglas carry the film through a sheer force of charisma. Alan Silvestri’s musical score perfects the intended tone, and Zemeckis’ direction displays a rare visual eye for action and spectacle. It may be the sub-standard cousin of better adventure movies, but it is still a rollicking good time. This is the kind of adventure tailored to be watched on a rainy afternoon.