Romancing the Stone was originally fed to us as another Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off, its posters and commercials promising a modern-day variant on Indiana Jones. That does the movie a great disservice. Director Robert Zemeckis -- demonstrating one again that light entertainment is his forte -- crafts a narrative formed of two parts Harlequin romance, one part Clive Cussler and a whole lot of knowing winks to wash it down. It’s not dissimilar from Indy’s adventures, but it still charts its own path: one distinctly different from its swashbuckling predecessors.
It remains a romp first and foremost, plopping timid city mouse Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) in the jungle primeval as a part of a far-fetched scheme to find a priceless jewel. Her brother-in-law mails her a treasure map before some evil maniac carves him into bits, and now some slightly less evil maniacs have kidnapped her sister in order to leverage the map out of her. She writes romance novels for a living -- a fairly good living, we're told -- but her life consists of quiet nights in her tiny New York apartment with her cat, peppered by the occasional grueling lunch where her agent tries to set her up with the nearest creep at the bar. She's not prepared to head off to Columbia on a whim, but with her sister getting ready to be fed to the crocodiles, she doesn't have much of a choice.
The fish-out-of-water notion forms the first prong of Zemeckis's attack. Turner had already established herself as Hollywood's go-to femme fatale with the likes of Body Heat. Here she goes completely against type as a meek, sweet-hearted wallflower, and turns the shift into comedy gold. Things get even better with the introduction of Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas), a freelance parrot smuggler who saves Turner's life in the middle of the rain forest. He's not in the business of rescuing damsels in distress and makes that perfectly clear, but she agrees to pay him to lead her to safety, and he gets a lot more interested when he finds out what's on the other end of that treasure map.
That constitutes Zemeckis's second secret weapon, a little more complex than the first. Romance soon blooms -- punctuated by various bad guys trying to get their hands on the map -- and the chemistry between the couple is positively nuclear. Turner and Douglas thrive on the Beatrice and Benedict school of courtship, where they hate other so much it must be love. Throwing them into a dangerous environment with drug dealers, snakes and fiendish military strongmen gunning for their hides makes the perfect test tube for their onscreen potential to catch fire.
And that's not even the best part. Having established Douglas as a self-serving douche, Romancing the Stone leaves open the intriguing possibility that he's conning her: that he'd be happy to claim the jewel himself and leave her holding the bag when it's all over. Zemeckis leaves the question unanswered almost until the last scene, adding just enough danger to their fiery coupling to give it some spice.
That little wrinkle turns out to be just one of many. Like all of the best genre exercises, Romancing the Stone understands the clichés and knows just how to knock them for a loop. The criminal kingpin who turns out to be a fan of Wilder's books. The kidnappers taking their playbook out of "The Ransom of Red Chief" (Danny DeVito's inept bungler forms a strong third leg to the stool with Douglas and Turner). The goggle-eye disbelief from a couple who can't quite believe what's happening to them when they drive a car over a waterfall. Those clever nudges may be the only thing borrowed from Raiders, but Zemeckis deploys them with such skill and relish that it hardly matters. (Credit for most of them goes to screenwriter Diane Thomas, who was killed in a car accident a year after this film opened. We lost a real talent with her.)
The rest of Romancing the Stone is a true original, the perfect blend of adventure, comedy and romance that can appeal to anyone no matter what their mood or proclivities. It also carries a refreshingly adult perspective. This may be a lark, but grown-ups need those too and the lack of pandering to teenage sensibilities helps it stand apart from other adventure films of the era. Only at the end does it take a turn for the grim: not precisely a misstep, but certainly a jolting wake-up following 90 minutes of good clean fun. These days, the entire movie would consist of jolting wake-ups. Romancing the Stone comes from another era of filmmaking: one gentler, lighter and more interested in showing everyone a good time. That it holds up so well speaks to the skill with which it was assembled, but also from the fact that they don't make them like this anymore. And that's a real shame.