A fleeting glance at the cover art, trailer or plot synopsis for Romancing the Stone, and it would seem that this Robert Zemeckis-directed picture could have easily bore the title Raiders of the Lost Stone. However, this would be writing off a film that deserves far more credit and attention. While it does at times play out like an Indiana Jones-style action-adventure serial, Romancing the Stone was written before Raiders of the Lost Ark even went into production, and the film’s Saturday matinee spirit is merged with outright romance. In addition, a certain kitschy, tongue-in-cheek tone and spirit permeates this little-known 1984 gem, to the point that it could be foremost considered a comedy. In short, this is a superbly entertaining blend of humour, action and romance, all the while retaining a 1980s vibe in terms of soundtrack and flair for theatrics.
Romancing the Stone begins as frumpy romance novelist Joan Wilder (Turner) completes her latest romantic saga and passes it onto her publisher. Not long afterwards, she receives a mysterious package from her sister Elaine (Trainor) and soon finds herself embroiled in a ransom scheme, with a couple of criminals demanding Joan travels to Columbia to deliver a treasure map in exchange for Elaine’s life. Fundamentally stepping into one of her own adventure-romance novels, Joan heads to the dangerous jungles of Columbia where she meets dashing treasure seeker Jack T. Colton (Douglas) who agrees to help (in exchange for money). Together, Jack and Joan race to save Elaine, all the while being pursued by a moustachioed villain (Ojeda) who is also determined to obtain the map.
For all intents and purposes, Romancing the Stone should not have been the massive hit that it was. At the time, Michael Douglas was known as a bit player and a producer, while Kathleen Turner had only starred in one movie of note (Body Heat) and screenwriter Diane Thomas was merely a wannabe working in a diner. Douglas hired Robert Zemeckis to take the helm, who hadn’t worked in four years and had not directed anything of note at this early stage in his career. The film had all the earmarks of a failure and studio insiders expected it to flop, and yet it was a hit –Romancing the Stone hit a nerve with feminists and hopeless romantics, and was adored by movie-goers simply seeking a good time. In fact, it grossed over eight times its production budget, leading to a sequel (Jewel of the Nile) and allowing Zemeckis to make Back to the Future. The success and long-term staying power of Romancing the Stone can mostly be attributed to the way the filmmakers melded action, adventure, comedy and romance with such ease and charisma. Diane Thomas’ screenplay also deserves credit. Sure, the structure is basic and the characters are obvious, but that’s the point. It’s simple, and it works because of how witty it is. There are enough hilarious one-liners here to sink a battleship. It’s a damn shame that Diane tragically died before she could complete another script.
Movies like Romancing the Stone are not about thematic depth or insight, but pure, unadulterated fun ladled up in scoops as large as the audience can swallow. With this film, Robert Zemeckis was handling a large canvas and a bunch of soon-to-be-major stars for the first time in his career, and his efforts are without a fault. Opening with a fast and humorous fantasy sequence, Zemeckis managed to keep the pace taut and the energy levels high from start to finish while effortlessly handling the tonal changes of this multi-faceted jewel with great panache – the comedic scenes are hilarious, the action scenes are fun and exciting, and the moments of peril simply drip with a sense of danger. All these years on, this film still retains its hard-to-nail charm. Furthermore, Romancing the Stone is sure to trigger a nostalgic smile due to the ’80s hairstyles, costumes and style, not to mention the delightful, jazzy, instantly recognisable soundtrack.
Of course, the script’s brilliant integration of styles, well-written characters and classic love story would mean nothing without the talents of the right stars, and, in this regard, Romancing the Stone is an unequivocal success once again. As Jack T. Colton and Joan Wilder, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner share a sizzling chemistry that seems to defy the laws of cinematic convention. The relationship they strike up is not only believable, but it feels wholly organic in its formation, progression and solidification; all within the film’s 100-minute runtime and all being born out of the action, drama and humour of the story. Douglas’ superbly charismatic performance exudes tough guy bravado and is infused with a boorish attitude; the polar opposite of the heroes Joan writes about in her novels. Turner, meanwhile, has never been more beautiful, and she captured the lonely heart spirit perfectly. Another standout is Danny DeVito, who provides an extra dose of humour to help make the experience the utter delight that it is.
Romancing the Stone is straightforward and hokey, to be sure, and not a little silly, yet it is always exciting and light on its feet; never taking itself too seriously, and at no point outstaying its welcome while trying to supply a thrill (or a laugh) a minute. Infused with an ’80s persona, this is the type of film which reminds viewers of a time before big-budget superhero movies and CGI infested blockbusters produced on an “everything must be bigger” mentality. They just don’t make films as bright, fun and witty as Romancing the Stone anymore. It is easy to fall in love with this overlooked, forgotten little gem.