Category Archives: 1980’s Flashback

1980’s Flashback offers a retrospective on movies released during the 1980’s — the flux capacitor to my Delorean.

1989 Flashback: Gleaming the Cube

I don’t know what’s worse: getting blown up in nuclear war or having a 7-11 on every corner.

gleaming the cube poster

In my effort to watch movies from 1989 (because 30th anniversary) that I missed the first time around, I rattled the streaming services to see what shook down. Not to steal the 80s All Over podcast thunder  — but I definitely don’t plan to watch everything from 1989. They’re doing the heavy lifting, I’m just doing a couple squats and calling it a day.

I have a weakness for 80’s counterculture movies and Christian Slater; therefore, it’s inexplicable that I’d never sat down with Gleaming the Cube until now.

We’re Surrounded by Gleaming the Cube and We Don’t Even Know It

Released on January 13th, 1989 in 469 theaters at a time when everyone was watching Rain Man and any other movie might as well just bugger off — Gleaming the Cube made only $2.7million at the box office. It gained more life on home video and cable replays on USA Network and has become a cultural touchstone for young skaters everywhere. References to the film have appeared in The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, South Park, The Goldbergs, The Lego Batman Movie and even the new Netflix Voltron series.

gleaming the cube

Christian Slater plays Brian Kelly, a 16-year-old skateboarder who takes it upon himself to investigate the death of his adopted Vietnamese brother after the police rule his death a suicide. Brian and his anti-establishment skater friends take down Cali-based international arms dealers by being punk as hell and now kowtowing to the man.

And that’s all you really need to know. Brian falls for a girl, gets dismissed for being a social misfit, and ultimately proves that despite his outward IDGAF appearance, he’s not the zero that everyone thinks. While the narrative feels trite and advances predictably, there’s a well-intentioned heart to the film that embraces the social consequences of being anti-establishment. I don’t want to oversell the film’s profundities, but Gleaming the Cube masks a certain amount of intelligence behind its caricature-laden and simpleminded facade — perfectly paralleling the plight of its main character.

gleaming the cube

I don’t know if director Graeme Clifford had such ambitions in mind for this teen drama, but I also can’t immediately discount him as someone who stumbled into relative creative success. Frances, his first feature, garnered Academy Award nominations for Lead Actress (Jessica Lang) and Supporting Actress (Kim Stanley). The biopic of Frances Farmer immediately preceded a couple episodes of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre. After Gleaming the Cube? A wasteland of Kirstie Alley and made-for-TV movies.

Gleaming the Cube Verdict

Kinda dumb, but dumb in a way that seems to be intentionally masking some intentioned ideas about counter/teen culture. The bevy of talented skaters/stuntmen include Tony Hawk and Mike McGill and even though I don’t follow skating I’m familiar with these two titans of the sport. As a result the skating scenes aren’t just cursory exercises — they’re carefully plotted and performed. There’s a reason Gleaming the Cube continues to inspire skateboarders in 2019.

You can’t deny the charisma of late 80’s/early 90’s Christian Slater. He’s a potent screen presence because he rides a line between a little bit dangerous and totally relatable. Although he’d already appeared in some prestige movies like The Name of the Rose and Tucker: A Man and His Dream, Gleaming the Cube gave Slater a chance to be his own thing — a thing that he would perfect later on in 1989 in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume (1990).

Gleaming the Cube is available on Amazon Prime Streaming. Unfortunately there’s no Blu-ray or HD version available.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

 

 

 

1989 Flashback: The January Man

Nick Starkey : Frank, I got one thing to say to you, and it’s hard but I gotta say it. And if you can accept it, a lot of other shit’s gonna fall into place. Frank, Mom loved me more than you. That’s why I took the fall for you, Frank.

Frank Starkey : I wish you’d just fuckin’ die.

John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano changes lives. No hyperbole. Just the facts. People who love Joe Versus the Volcano, myself included, speak of the film in spiritual ways. Shanley, a successful playwright, dabbled in Hollywood by way of winning the Academy Award for Moonstruck (1987) in 1988.

The little golden statue allowed him some room for experimentation. As a result, in 1989, MGM dared to make a noirish, romantic-comedyish, serial killer movie called The January Man. Despite starring the then red-hot Kevin Kline, fresh off A Fish Called Wanda (1988), The January Man made only $4million at the box office.

The ever gregarious New York Times critic Vincent Canby proclaimed: “The January Man is well titled. It’s a big-budget mainstream production that, in spite of its first-rate writer, director and cast, manages to fail in just about every department. It couldn’t have stood up to the competition from the slightly less bad films released in December.”

Vincent Canby and Bosley Crowther in their office at the New York Times.

Regarding The January Man, I agree with Statler and Waldof

In my mind, Vincent Canby’s either the Statler or Waldorf of film criticism, but in this instance he’s not spitting wildly over the microphone as he works himself into a froth (as I’d imagine him if he were podcasting all his reviews). It’s rather clear that what appears on screen couldn’t have been Shanley’s original vision — that the producers of the film didn’t trust a wild-eyed young buck that had a mind for merging mismatched genres in an anti-hero and social misfit named Nick Starkey.

Scandalized and disgraced former NYPD detective takes his wild, self-destructive talents to the fire department before being called back into service by his jerk-store police commissioner brother (Harvey Keitel) and the mayor (Rod Steiger). Apparently Nick’s the only man smart enough to catch a devious serial killer murdering socialites. And apparently his brother married Nick’s ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon), for which Nick still harbors emotions. Police Chief Alcoa (Danny Aiello) hates Nick’s laissez faire attitude, but goes along with the reinstatement because the mayor says. Nick’s painter friend (Alan Rickman) comes along as his assistant, because in this New York City even the comedic relief are more capable of solving crimes than the police commissioner. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio pops into the picture as friend of one of the victims and practically serves as the romantic interest that gets Nick’s eyes off his brother’s woman.

Together the trio of amateur sleuths recognize that the police are barking up the wrong leads. When they arrest the wrong man, the powers-that-be close the case. Nick, however, believes the killer will strike again unless he takes matters into his own hands. Tune in for amazing on-screen 1989 computer computations, underdeveloped subplots and characters played by major actors that just disappear.

Finesse, Lost in The January Man

John Patrick Shanley’s script aims for dark thriller with light comedy and some romantic melodrama and sometimes it works and most of the time it really doesn’t. But it could have. It’s like you set up the board for a game of Clue, placed all the pieces and then chucked the board. (I’m sure that’s a perfectly clear metaphor.)

Without knowing anything about the production (because nobody proliferated Interwebs with minutiae in 1989), The January Man feels like a movie that had a killer script and somewhere along the way a “committee” got ahold of it and made it palatable for the lowest common denominator. They didn’t understand the quirks and redlined what would have made it unique. Kline’s disgraced former police officer turned fireman and painter Alan Rickman make for a fun pair of non-detectives solving crimes, but alas, it should have been so much more. Ideas are all over this movie — all setups without punchlines. It’s a 97-minute act two. Everyone other than Kline feels like wallpaper, and the murderer doesn’t even reach wallpaper status. (Does that make him shelf paper?)

The January Man probably claims the most DNA in common with Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an off-kilter murder mystery that wanders off in strange and unusual ways. Mismatched buddy cops. Love interests. Odd twists. Embrace the script at the level of character and let these characters find their own way — quirks, messiness and all. Shane Black knew how to direct a Shane Black script. Meanwhile Pat O’Connor (Circle of Friends) had absolutely no idea what to do with a John Patrick Shanley script other than herd it into a boilerplate serial killer movie.

God bless you, Alan Rickman.

The January Man Verdict

With a cast featuring Kline, Rickman (fresh off his breakthrough in Die Hard), Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Danny Aiello, Harvey Keitel and Rod Steiger, a viewer could almost weep for the movie that never was. Sarandon’s character clearly hit the cutting room floor — but structurally her role (like many other elements we’ll never know about) colored outside the lines.

Kevin Kline’s Nick Starkey was meant to be a portrait of a man, wronged by the institution and his family, with an acerbic sense of humor. He’s not outwardly angry about his unfortunate fall from grace, he’s just going through life as best he can, which is to say, emotionally stunted and free from material distraction. At home only among his eccentricities and his oddball friends. These filmmakers took all that messiness and all those rough edges and tried to sand them down into something that would make sense for everyone. As a result, none of it makes sense. We laughed a bit but mostly scratched our heads and wondered what else we missed.

At this point in his career, Kline’s a legitimate movie star on the verge of being a superstar. Leading man charisma, a devilishly handsome mustache and easygoing charm. He deserved a movie that embraced his ability to play light but be dark and brooding beneath the facade. Audiences may not have known what to do with John Patrick Shanley’s original vision for The January Man (and it may not have made any more money) but at least we could have held it up as an underappreciated genre-bending thriller that dared to be unique and eccentric.

The January Man might not be perfect but there’s enjoyable characters buried in a haphazard mess of a movie. The January Man is available on Blu-ray from Kino Studio Classics.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

 

80’s Flashback: The Lost Boys

Paul: Garlic don’t work boys.
Edgar Frog: Then try it with holy water deadbreath! 

the lost boys poster

The Lost Boys Elevator Pitch

One of the Coreys moves into fictional Santa Carla, California, which he soon learns has a vampire infestation. When his brother goes half vampire, Corey teams up with Corey and some other kid to break the curse. Lost Boys!

The Shame-Maker

Despite my love for all things 1980’s, I’d never seen Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys in its entirety. Chalk up another omission to the “I saw part of it on TV one day and… eh…” category. The Lost Boys also owns the distinction of being a film directed by Joel Schumacher, who, whether he knows it or not, has become my nemesis.

The feud began in 1990 (Flatliners), escalated in 1997 (Batman & Robin) and became a legitimate blood feud in 1998 (8mm) with many smaller transgressions in between.

I called a truce just long enough to face my Cinema Shame and order up The Lost Boys on Netflix DVD.

The 1987 Boys

If I had to pick the most 80’s year of the 1980’s, I would without hesitation choose 1987. If I were to pick the most 1987 movie from the year 1987, I might just pick The Lost Boys.

Joel Schumacher first worked in the fashion industry and broke into Hollywood as a costume designer. After writing a few successful screenplays he made his directorial debut on The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). Schumacher directs like a fashion designer with foregrounded flash and spectacle and maybe something going on behind, but maybe not. Most likely not, but that’s irrelevant because LOOK AT THE FABULOUS LAPELS ON HIS LEATHER JACKET.

The Lost Boys Nostalgia

The Lost Boys looks and feels like a music video. A motorcycle chase scored my Lou Gramm’s (Foreigner) “Lost in the Shadows” gives the film its backbone. Elsewhere on the soundtrack find such clear-eyed aural vampire analogies like Echo and the Bunnymen’s “People are Strange” and Roger Daltrey’s version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” These are not subtle cues.

the lost boys 1987

In turn, more narrative beats hit you through musical montage and wardrobe rather than dialogue and action. Schumacher ladles on superficial visceral thrills in place of downtime. The result is film as pop-culture. As a kinetic riff on 1987 popular culture, The Lost Boys would have felt hyper-stylized in the moment. Removed from the era of its manufacture, the film now feels reflective of our late 80’s nostalgia.

This is how we now remember 1987 — a compression of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” leather, bitchin’ power rock anthems, INXS, a little bit of neon, sunglasses, the Coreys, Hawaiian shirts as a fashion statement. Even the vampire mythology feels rooted in 1987. Pre-Anne Rice and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Lost Boys Flashback Verdict

None of these things prevents The Lost Boys from being a good movie. On the contrary, these jolts of processed pop culture nostalgia seem to have some of the most adamant fans. They stand out precisely for the reasons highlighted above.

Due to my pre-disposed negativity for Joel Schumacher I watched The Lost Boys and yelled BINGO! after seeing all my favorite Joel Schumacher flourishes grace the screen before the half-hour mark. As a director, Schumacher’s a magician, a practitioner of misdirection, and The Lost Boys probably remains his crowning achievement. But instead of smoke and mirrors, he’s using rock anthems and Kiefer Sutherland.

If you loved The Lost Boys back in 1987, I’d wager that you’re still very much attached to the film. As a lover of all things 80’s, I understand the allure completely; it hits you like a 10-ton blob of hair gel.

Having viewed this film for the first time as a 40-year old manchild, the tone’s far more childish than I’d anticipated. Safe scares for prepubuscent horror-fans-in-training with Jason Patric as your James Dean rebelling with a cause, an excellent cause by the name 1987’s Jami Gertz. Light on vampire gore, but high on humor, mild tension and beautiful people.

jami gertz the lost boys

There are worse reason to love a movie — but understand that presentation in The Lost Boys is everything and if you peek behind the gloss, it’s mostly undead.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

80s Flashback: The Jewel of the Nile

the jewel of the nile french poster

Rekindling my love for Romancing the Stone propelled me onward. My wife and I tossed in the much maligned sequel Jewel of the Nile, a movie I remembered as trite but entertaining. An innocent lark that didn’t live up to expectations. Or was that just widespread popular consensus encroaching on personal taste? I ordered up the Blu-ray from Netflix and hunkered down to complete the Turner/Douglas/DeVito trilogy.

jewel of the nile
Obligatory proof of physical media because PHYSICAL MEDIA.

Jewel: What are you doing?

Joan Wilder: In my last novel, ‘Angelina and the Savage Secret’ Angelina used a nail file to chip away at the bars of her cell to remove them and escape to freedom.

Jewel: How long did this take?

Joan Wilder: Two pages.

Jewel of the Nile Elevator Pitch

Romance novelist Joan Wilder sails the seas, explores exotic ports of call with newly-minted man of leisure Jack Colton until the restless, writers-blocked Joan sets off for North Africa with the first man who takes her seriously as a writer. It just so happens he’s a cruel authoritarian dictator who wants her to write propaganda or die so he can put on a Laser Floyd show and convince everyone he’s some sort of mystical cleric. Meanwhile Jack and his new partner-in-crime Ralph set out to maybe rescue Joan but definitely find the mysterious and fabled Jewel of the Nile.

No Sheep is Safe Tonight!

Foggy images of Danny DeVito in a makeshift turban. The only trace memory left about Jewel of the Nile. Much of it came flooding back during my viewing, but not exactly as I’d recalled.

Director Lewis Teague carved out a niche in the horror genre during the early 1980s having directed Alligator, Cujo and Cat’s Eye. When Teague attempted to break away from the genre and prove he was more than just another hack horror director from the Corman filmmaking machine, he displayed the hammer-fisted nuance of someone who hadn’t apprenticed under Sydney Pollack or edited films for Monte Hellman and Jonathan Demme.

the jewel of the nile
Lewis Teague proved capable of showcasing extraordinary vistas, but little else in this big-budget misfire.

Robert Zemeckis had abdicated the director’s chair, presumably because he’d already begun production on Back to the Future. Not that Jewel had ever been a desirable property for the up-and-coming director. 20th Century Fox had been blindsided by the $115million international success of the $10million Romancing the Stone and immediately rushed Jewel into production. By giving an 18-month start-to-finish turnaround time for the sequel, Fox alienated its writer and stars and made Zemeckis’ return an impossibility.

Once More Into the Breach (of Contract), Dear Friends!

Fox exercised the sequel option embedded in the contracts of both Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. Douglas approached Stone writer Diane Thomas about penning the sequel. Due to some combination of money, timing and/or commitments to Steven Spielberg (her script for him would become Always), Thomas wouldn’t come aboard this anti-pleasure cruise.

Douglas, stuck in the dual roles of reluctant star and reluctant producer, had to carry on with Jewel pre-production while filming A Chorus Line for Richard Attenborough. Douglas approached writers Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner — a writing duo that had nothing but TV credits to their names. (They would go on to write scripts for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace an Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country.

[Insert audible groans here.]

Despite her contractual obligation, Turner tried to back out of the project, calling the script “terrible, formulaic, and sentimental.” Fox threatened Turner with a $25million breach of contract lawsuit, and Turner returned only after Douglas promised rewrites on the script.

Douglas and Turner attempted to cobble together something resembling an acceptable script from various drafts while in their Moroccan hotel as The Jewel of the Nile prepared to shoot. In her Vulture interview, Turner indicates that she never found any comfort in their efforts to resuscitate the dead fish penne by Konner and Rosenthal.

When the Going Gets Tough

From there the production went further downhill. First, there was the oppressive heat. The production also had to bribe local officials to push filming equipment through customs. A plane crash killed production designers Richard Dawking and Brian Coates while scouting locations. Even Douglas and Turner had an air scare when severe winds made for a tense a landing in Morocco.

And now we’ll return to Lewis Teague. Teague, who’d been weened on small, tightly controlled productions found the demands of a rushed Hollywood blockbuster unwieldy. After hours of staging and preparing a complicated night scene, the director discovered that they’d neglected to put film in the camera. The shoot had to be rescheduled entirely as the film crew scrambled to find more film stock.

Despite tepid reviews and unhappy fans, The Jewel of the Nile’s ($75.9million) domestic box office rivaled that of Romancing the Stone ($76.5million).

Bonus Points for Timeliness?

Some of the spirit of adventure and banter remains, but The Jewel of the Nile is a desperate, tiresome movie shadowboxing its far superior predecessor.

The Jewel of the Nile

Like Romancing the Stone, Jewel opens with a scene from Joan’s novel in progress, a swashbuckling pirate adventure on the high seas. The scene in Stone developed the hopeless (and gullible) romantic inside Joan Wilder and set our expectations for the inevitable arrival of Jack Colton (only to have them undermined by the less than chivalrous reality of a treasure-hunting mercenary).

The Jewel of the Nile uses this scene as a gag that fails to propel or inform anything that subsequently happens in the story. It’s an empty recall. The writers failed to grasp how the scene served the film. This, unfortunately, becomes a common theme.

Jack Colton becomes a Budweiser swilling, woman-ignoring man of leisure while Joan reverts back to cat-lady Joan with sunscreen plastered on her nose, slaving away all day on a book she can’t finish. Somehow, the writers of The Jewel of the Nile managed to transpose the moldy, 1950’s “man of the house” relationship onto these exotic adventurers.

While the narrative certainly proves problematic, Turner could have used a rewrite on this dress.

The movie takes liberties with the characters in the name of narrative convenience. Jack catches a case of petulant jealousy. Joan seizes her latent need to become a serious writer and, rebelling against Jack’s condescension, accepts the first offer that comes her way.

Obvious fascist potentate: Hi. You don’t know me. I’m a great admirer of your work, Joan Wilder. I’m also a great great great great man who is not entirely dangerously full of himself at all. Won’t you write my biography?

Joan: YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES.

Jack: Maybe you should rethink this.

Joan: YOU JUST DON’T THINK I’M GOOD ENOUGH.

Jack: Maybe that’s the way it came out because the movie needed to manufacture artificial drama by making me the ignorant man, but I honestly, really, truly think that you’re making a poor decision running off with this man that is clearly a dictator.

Joan: GOODBYE, JACK. Dick.

Jack: FINE. I’LL JUST COME GET YOU IN A MINUTE, THO. WE’LL ENJOY SOME AWKWARD POTENTIALLY RACIALLY PROBLEMATIC ADVENTURES THROUGH NORTH AFRICA!

[/scene]

The Tough Get Going

Some spoilers ahead.

Much of The Jewel of the Nile fills me with disinterest, but there’s a creative spark that prevents me from dismissing it. The hook that the Jewel isn’t actually a gem, but a person, elevates the film over the pusillanimous goings-on. Avner Eisenberg, the American vaudevillian/magician/mime, steals the show. He’s a gifted comic performer and the only reason (other than Turner’s spirited performance) to endure the final third of the film.

There’s such a cacophony of noise and destruction in the wake of Jack and Joan’s travels that the mild-mannered clowning performed by Eisenberg feels refreshing and earnest. A grounded plane levels a city, Jack makes stuff explode for the fun of it (showing none of the guile that allowed him to survive the Colombian wilds), and armadas of camel-born insurgents blast Whodini’s “Freaks Come Out at Night” on a boombox. (Where do they get all the batteries?)

I’ll admit to enjoying the last part.

But this criticism highlights the major problem with The Jewel of the Nile. Like Romancing the Stone, the pleasures are to be found in the smaller moments. Barbed dialogue, the wit and charm of its actors, and comfortable genre familiarity. The Jewel of the Nile amplifies the aspects of the original that had been limited by budget at the expense of creative ingenuity and the chemistry between Douglas and Turner. In other words, all the worst tendencies of a sequel.

Cue Billy Ocean.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add The Jewel of the Nile to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

80’s Flashback: Romancing the Stone

Joan Wilder: You’re the best time I’ve ever had.
Jack Colton: I’ve never been anybody’s best time.

romancing the stone poster

Romancing the Stone Elevator Pitch

Romance novelist fish-out-of-waters through the Columbian wilds as she attempts to ransom her sister from smalltime schemesters by delivering the map to a jewel called El Corazon, meets Indiana Jungle Jones and winds up afoul of not only the schemesters but a faction of the Colombian army — all hell bent on taking the jewel for themselves.

Those Were Italian!

Few movies sew those nostalgic oats quite like Romancing the Stone. The movie implanted one of my earliest moviegoing memories that didn’t involve Star Wars. Robert Zemeckis’ 1984 adventurer wasn’t my very first theatrical live action film experience, it often feels like it. An early moment in the film indirectly reminds me what it was like to be six years old and staring up at the big screen in wonder.

Jack grows tired of Kathleen Turner’s romance novelist hobbling around the South American jungle. He takes his machete and chops the heels off her shoes.

Joan Wilder: Those were Italian.
Jack Colton: Now they’re practical.

What did I know about women’s shoes? Not a thing. I probably wore velcro Kangaroos with the little pockets to the theater. Still, 6yo me marked that down as hilarious. I remember using that “Those were Italian!” line in many different circumstances. I might accidentally break something and exclaim “Those were Italian!” like a catch-all expletive. You get the picture. I never succeeded in making “Those were Italian!” my own personal catchphrase, but the scene itself acts as a time capsule. I’m instantly granted the gift a piece of me as I was in 1984.

Nostalgia’s a wonderful thing in moderation. We can never go home again, but cinematic moments like these, the ones we latch onto for whatever reason, grant us a fleeting reprieve from the bustle of adulthood.

romancing the stone kathleen turner

Kathleen Turner Overdrive

After reading Kathleen Turner’s nuclear interview by David Marchese of Vulture, my wife and I began winding through Turner’s filmography. I started with a first-time viewing of The War of the Roses (1988) and then returned to the beginning of the Douglas/Turner/DeVito era with a Romancing the Stone refresher.

Over the years, Stone has become comfort food for this 80’s soul. Unfortunately it seems that younger viewers don’t appreciate the simplicity of Stone‘s form and function. My observations come purely from casual browsing of Letterboxd.com, so please don’t @ me with demographic studies that show most women aged 18-25 rate Romancing the Stone four stars or higher (unless of course those demographic studies support my remedial investigation).

war of the roses

Turner just goes for it. In every film. That was never more apparent than in The War of the Roses where she gives an absolutely savage performance. I’ve always felt that Romancing the Stone was a Michael Douglas movie — the charmer, the expat vigilante treasure hunter. I had it all wrong. Turner’s romance novelist makes the journey from a fainting woman of words to an action hero. Without Turner’s commitment to both sides of Joan Wilder, the scripted character could have remained nothing more than a distressed damsel. She made more of the character than was on the page.

 Misplaced Treasure of Classic Cinema

While Romancing the Stone proffers a style of entertainment rooted in the trends of the 1980’s, it also recalls screwball films and swashbuckling action/adventurers of the 1930’s. Michael Douglas’ Jack Colton character might be a less studious Indiana Jones, but he’s, at heart, an amalgamation of many matinee idols. Gary Cooper or Johnny Weissmuller without the patina of glossy perfection. And it’s hardly a stretch to imagine Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn as Jack Colton and Joan Wilder slashing through a soundstage populated by ferns and palms and verbal barbs.

the philadelphia story
Take Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and just add jungle.

The Grant/Hepburn substitution feels natural. Robert Zemeckis directed Romancing the Stone with the pretense of propping up the charisma of his stars as the main attraction, a decidedly old school filmmaking methodology. Stone sells the pretense of action and stuntwork, but the focus remains small and the danger never feels entirely real (owing to the cartoonish pursuit by the hyperbolic DeVito) and his megalomaniacal-ish cousin Ira (Zack Norman). Though the stunts occur in regular beats, none of them take the form of a centerpiece — except perhaps the escape from Juan’s compound. Even that, however, stands out as a result of the comedic talents of the great character actor Alfonso Arau.

romancing the stone alfonso arau

It’s entirely understandable hen someone says that Romancing the Stone didn’t live up to their expectations. Stone retains its status as a certified 80s classic. As a result viewers’ expectations likely skew bigger and broader. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the standard-bearer for 1980’s adventure cinema, casts a long shadow over other similar films of the era.

Character and Spectacle, Take 2

Best known for the Back to the Future films, Robert Zemeckis makes character-driven narratives within the modern iteration of the Hollywood dream machine. At its most basic component, behind the flash and spectacle of a time-traveling DeLorean, Back to the Future, like Romancing the Stone, is high concept narrative buoyed by the establishment and development of character.

romancing the stone

I’ll forgive first-time viewers that didn’t have their expectations met, but I’ll also suggest they go back for a second ride once their initial disappointment has evaporated. Focus on the interplay between Douglas and Turner. Focus on how their screwball banter and evolves beyond the idol worship of shadowy matinee man of action and romance. Consider how Romancing the Stone and Douglas then undermine the notion of the soft-focus man meat that inhabits Joan Wilder’s romance novels.

If all else fails, just give it another chance to appreciate Hollywood’s discovery of Kathleen Turner, superstar. She’s the real gem here, not the costume jewelry macguffin Joan and Jack rescue from a cave.

romancing the stone

On the next episode of 80’s Flashback, I’ll exorcise some demons and discuss my disappointment with The Jewel of the Nile.