A remote log cabin somewhere out in the harsh desert. The bad guy kicks open the door, and finds the heroine cornered. We get to know her name is Angelina, and the bad guy happens to be Grogan, or in other words
the filthiest, dirtiest, dumbest excuse for a man west of the Missouri River.
He corners her, and asks her to strip before killing her offering her the choice of death between dying “quick , like the tongue of a snake” or “slower than the molasses in January”. She removes her top, and as he is staring at her, brings out a knife hidden under her skirt and throws it at him killing him. That was his end, the guy who killed her father, raped her sister, burned her farm, stole her Bible and shot the dog. Whew, and as Angelina rides away she is chased by Grogan’s brothers wanting revenge, until her knight in shining armour Jessie appears, kills the bad guys, and both of them have a lingering kiss, as they ride off into the sunset. The End.
Wait no, this is actually like the beginning, as you wonder whether you are watching another pulp Hollywood western, you see the heroine Joan Wilder( Kathleen Turner), furiously typing away, and then you realize that shucks , its a setup. Welcome to the opening credits of “Romancing the Stone”, one of my all time favorite entertainers. If not for anything else, just the brilliant caper director Robert Zemeckis pulls off at the movie starting, is worth it. But its not just the way the user is fooled, that makes the opening scene so brilliant, its what he shows after. One moment you are in the Wild West, with cowboys, bad guys, desert and the next moment you are transported to the rather normal looking apartment of Joan Wilder. Its the way the heroine’s character is set up, a writer of adventure romances, she lives in her own fantasy world, of longing to be with her dream hero Jessie.
The fantasy world she imagines is totally opposite to the otherwise unremarkable world she lives in. Quite often as a kid and later as a teen, i would often just lie back and day dream, sometimes i wanted to be a lone ranger cowboy like Clint Eastwood, at another times a lone wolf cop ala Dirty Harry or fighting it out there in World War II. Fantasy was something that allowed me to live in another world, if just to get over the normal routine life i was having. And so here it is we see in Joan’s character, a succesful author, prim and propah city miss, who never ever really had a big adventure, leading a rather drab and monotonous life. In fact her character is established by her VO she gives for Angelina
But suddenly there he was, my beloved Jessie. He was the one man I trusted, the only man. My heart leapt as i watched him ride near.
Yep absolutely Hallmarkish in its tone, and that establishes her for what she is a hopeless romantic, awaiting her mystery lover to sweep her away. But also a tongue in cheek look at the romance genre.
Joan however needs to deal with more real issues. Her sister Elaine, has been held to ransom by a group of crooks, Ira(Zack Norman) and Ralph( Danny De Vito) in Colombia. Elaine’s husband had been earlier kidnapped and murdered brutally. Joan gets a mysterious package containing a sort of treasure map, which her sister asks to bring to Colombia, to secure her release. The map contains the route to a precious stone, which the crooks want now. Again we see Ira and Ralph on a yatch, with crocodiles for company, and here again these two characters are set up beautifully. Ralph is the guy who does not like the idea of kidnapping, and feels they had enough, while Ira just wants to have this “One big last one”.
But its not just Ralph and Ira, looking out for the map, there is the chief baddie, Zolo, a rogue cop, with his own private army, and unlike the bumbling duo of Ira and Ralph, highly vicious and crooked. He was the guy responsible for murder of Elaine’s husband. And he deliberately gets Joan onto the wrong bus, so that he could waylay her and steal the map. Unfortunately for Zolo, due to a mixup, Joan is saved by Jack Colton( Michael Douglas), a free wheeling adventurer, hunting rare birds in the Colombian jungles for money. Jack seems to be the guy Joan is dreaming of, rugged, free spirited, adventurous. Interestingly director Zemeckis gives us that visual hint where, when Jack comes on to the screen, his silhoutte is almost the same which Joan dreams of her hero Jessie.
And as the cliche goes “Opposites always attract”. Joan is the prim and proper city miss, who has never been outside New York, who gets dizzy riding the elevator, but now in a crazy adventure she only fantasized about in her novels. Jack is the rugged, individualist, the free booting, hunter, frequenting the jungles. And like any other love story, theirs starts off on a not too pleasant note. In a great scene, they are stranded on a lonely mountain road, Jack throws away her suitcase, and as she curses, both of them fall down a mountain stream. So now the characters are set up, Joan, the prim and proper city miss on an unlikely adventure, Jack, the rugged swashbuckling adventurer, Ira and Ralph, the odd couple pair of bumbling crooks and Zolo, the nasty rogue cop. Each has their own motivation for the treasure map, and the emerald, Joan needs it to secure the release of her sister, Jack helps out Joan as he just wants to get himself out from Colombia with as much money as he can, Zolo needs it for obvious reasons, while Ira and Ralph, want to have one last shot.
Make no mistake, Romancing the Stone, is escapist entertainment with a capital E. But it also proves that to entertain the audience it is not necessary to leave one’s brains behind. The script for the movie was written by Diane Thomas, a Malibu waitress, and which impressed Michael Douglas enough to produce the movie based on it. But it goes more than that, even now to date, the script for Romancing the Stone, is one of the most discussed and analyzed. It is taken as a case study and example in many screen writing courses, and considered one of the best written. So why? Why is a script essentially escapist in nature, so widely analyzed?
Trust me, i love escapist entertainment, and i love nothing else than getting swept away by the action on big screen. Now what constitutes escapist entertainment, might vary from person to person. One of the foremost factors for me, when it comes to entertainment are the characters. I need to have characters whom i can feel and root for. I can see ET a hundred times all over, just because of Elliot and ET. But Jurassic Park even with all those hi tech effects, just leaves me rather cold, mainly because of its absolutely flat characterization. For that matter i liked The Lost World more, because i felt the characterization was more deeper. As i have discussed here, its the way the characters and their motivations are set up in Romancing the Stone, that makes it such a great entertainer for me. Be it Jack and Joan’s love hate relationship, the goofy escapades of Ira and Ralph, or the nasty Zolo, everything falls into place. But its not just the main characters, a truly great entertainer is where even the side characters stay with you. Sholay was as much about Soorma Bhopali and Samba and Kaalia, as it was about Jai or Veeru or Gabbar. And one of the best side characters you have in Romancing the Stone, is Juan, a local Colombian drug smuggler. The scene where Jack and Joan meet him to seek his help is brilliantly set up here. Jack tries to take his help, and then sarcastically asks Joan if she can do anything. Juan listens to her name, and then he goes gushy, he happens to be a big fan of her pulpy romance novels, “the great Joan Wilder”. Watch the scene, just gonna get you really chuckling out here.
One more reason why Romancing the Stone entertains you big time, is that all the necessary elements for a pulp entertainer are mixed in the right amount. So you have a wonderful romance between Jack and Joan, and because it gels along with the main story, you dont feel its too obtrusive. Comedy of course in almost every frame, be it Jack and Joan’s escapades in the jungle, or Ralph’s bumbling antics. And enough drama, double crossing, escapades, action scenes. For me the movie entertained big time, because every stage, i had myself asking “What next?”, and when you feel yourself going along with the characters, thats where a movie crosses from merely good to great.
And finally the actors. No matter how many eye popping special effects you cram into the movie, no matter how many twists and turns are there in the story, not matter how breathtaking the stunts sans good characters and actors, the movie will always be flat.
Michael Douglas is first rate as the irascible, roguish adventurer, with his tongue in cheek humour, and rakish charm. Some how for me Douglas has always been a bit of an underrated actor, while he is more famous here for his masala stuff like The Ghost and the Darkness or Basic Instinct, he has been a brilliant performer in more serious dramatic roles like Wall Street, The Game , The War of the Roses and Traffic.
No one who has seen Body Heat, could ever forget Kathleen Turner’s smouldering sex appeal. And she again manages to charm you off the feet with her mixture of charm and sex appeal, trust me during my growing up years in the 80′s, she was one of my dream dates, along with Michelle Pfeiifer. And it also helps that both Douglas and Turner share that kind of chemistry, essential in this kind of movie. Interestingly both Douglas and Turner later appeared in War of the Roses, as a bickering couple, whose marriage is falling apart.
And that was directed by Danny De Vito, who is a total scream in the movie. Its not just De Vito’s short build, for me its his sense of timing, his delivery, that makes him one of my favorite comic actors. And man, this guy just makes you roll over in Romancing the Stone, watch his acting in the scene, where he finds out that he has missed Joan, howlarious.
Well if the current crop of “entertainers” are making you feel like tearing your hair out, and you want to be really entertained, go get the DVD of this, and watch it. Trust me you are gonna have a real ball of a time.