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Romancing the Stone

Fox // PG // October 14, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted October 22, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
As you wend your way through the extras on this Blu-ray, it may floor you to hear Michael Douglas talk about Robert Zemeckis as a has-been at the tender age of 28 when Douglas hired him to helm Romancing the Stone. But then again, it may also floor you to hear Douglas refer to himself self-deprecatingly as the last person anyone thought could carry a movie in those days--after all, he was still seen as "only" a television actor (from Streets of San Francisco), with a perhaps begrudging awareness from the film community that he was shaping up into a stellar producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). But actually star in a film? Never! Well, thankfully, hindsight is virtually always 20/20, and we can thank Douglas for a number of very, very smart decisions with regard to Romancing the Stone, among them hiring himself, Zemeckis, and the incredible Kathleen Turner (not to mention co-star Danny DeVito). Add to that his foresight in recognizing scenarist Diane Thomas' singular creation of what was then a pretty much new genre--the action adventure romance movie--especially considering the fact that Thomas at the time was a waitress with no film credits, and you rapidly come to the realization of how Michael has at least reached if not eclipsed the icon status of his father Kirk in the world of cinema (something he would no doubt humbly demur).

Romancing the Stone is one of those singular film experiences that is so much fun, and so much fun to return to, that it almost bypasses the critical mind to appeal to that wide-eyed child in all of us. Notice I said almost. If there are occasional very slight missteps along the way, they're inconsequential in the long run, as Stone follows the adventures of romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner doing an amazing 180 degree turn from her Body Heat Matty Walker), who finds herself caught up in some international intrigue when her sister is kidnapped by some buffoons (including DeVito), and Joan must travel to Colombia ("country-doubled" rather beautifully by Mexico in the film) to help rescue her by returning a treasure map that the sister's dead husband mailed to Joan prior to his unseemly demise. In Colombia, Joan quickly finds herself at the mercy of an unscrupulous Colombian governmental cum Army official, and just as unexpectedly finds herself rescued by a character seemingly sprung from the pages of one her steamy novels, Jack Colton (Michael Douglas). After teaming up, the two find themselves sought after not only by the Colombian official but also DeVito, who happens to also be sought by the official. It's a perfect set-up for a farce, and despite the absence of many slamming doors, Stone delivers its farcical goods over and over. But there are at least two more layers here--the exciting action adventure sequences, as Jack and Joan attempt to make their way through the dense Colombian jungle, and the romantic angle, as the pair slowly realize their constant bickering is masking a deeper affection for each other.

Turner is especially splendid throughout this film, since her character has the longest journey, figuratively and literally, to make. When we first see Joan, she is almost literally a closeted writer, perhaps agoraphobic, weeping happily over the ending of her just-completed novel. We quickly realize Joan is a prisoner of not only her own success, but also her perhaps insane wish to find a man as idealized as any in her written romantic fantasies. When she's suddenly called on to face bad guys and bullets, not to mention the ascerbic sarcasm of Jack Colton, she undergoes a neat little transformation into a woman more or less in charge of her own destiny, something Turner plays to the hilt. If Douglas is mostly window dressing here, he's absolutely elegant and charming, playing the physicality of Colton perfectly while allowing us a little insight into Jack's own peculiar brand of loneliness. And then there's Danny DeVito, all bluster and pratfalls, each wonderfully comedic in that explosive manner that only this diminutive actor can muster. It makes for one of the most unusual, yet effective, star trios in film history, and you'll be alternately laughing hysterically and sitting on the edge of your seat as they reel from adventure to adventure in their quest for a missing gem.

Zemeckis, here handling a large canvas and some major and soon-to-be major stars for the first time in his career, does a spectacular job of towing the line between the disparate style elements which make up the film. Opening with a fast and funny fantasy sequence, Zemeckis admirably maintains balance between not only the early, drab Joan and her later, more spunky incarnation, but also, more importantly, the romance and action sides of this multi-faceted jewel. The intimate interplay between Turner and Douglas is expertly handled--watch especially the gentle and touching scene in the abandoned airplane (and, significantly, watch the deleted scenes to see how Zemeckis very wisely jettisoned other uses of this same dialogue, crafting a much better scene in the process). And the action sequences are simply knockouts, from the funny and exciting chases in cars, to the unexpected slide down a muddy hillside that ends with one of the biggest punchlines of the film (which Douglas in an extra credits to a creative storyboard artist).

Where the film perhaps falls just a bit short of the mark is in its overplayed, and overlong, climax, which veers wildly between outright comedy (DeVito running down a field shooting over his head at a bunch of henchmen on horseback, whom he can obviously never outrun) to an almost too palpable realism (when Turner is taken hostage by the Colombian official, things quickly turn ugly, including a brutal fight and some pretty gory stuff featuring some crocodiles). It's simply a bit too hyperbolic for its own good, and seems especially unnecessary in light of the charming denouement which follows, once Joan is back in her home turf of New York City. This is merely a passing qualm, however, and doesn't detract very substantially from what is one of the most enjoyable cross-genre film experiences of the last 25-plus years.

The Blu-ray

Considering the age of this film, this is one pretty spectacular looking Blu-ray, with a superb 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I was consistently impressed with the depth and detail of the transfer, with some scenes looking positively three dimensional. Contrast and color are strong throughout, with some very nice darker segments, especially in the smoky interior of the abandoned airplane, balanced against the brightly lit, yet very crisp, city scenes early in the film.

Unfortunately the lossless HD 5.1 mix is a bit of a disappointment, with very little use of surround channels and surprisingly little ambient effects, especially noticeable in the jungle scenes. That said, there's nothing horrible here other than perhaps a lack of total immersion--dialogue and underscore are all perfectly clear and well-placed in the soundscape. There are also English and French DD 2.0 and Spanish 1.0 soundtracks available, as well as subtitles in all of the soundtrack languages, plus Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean.

All of the extras from the 2006 special edition DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. They include a four-part series, as usual culled from the same interview segments and then divided up fairly willy-nilly into various featurettes. There's quite a bit of info not only the film's genesis, but also some touching remembrances of screenwriter Diane Thomas, who was tragically killed in a car accident (a car actually given to her by Douglas, sadly). While the information is solid and enjoyable, I couldn't help but wonder (as I frequently do when things are handled this way), why in heaven's name do they split these things up instead of just letting them run? It's especially ridiculous when Michael Douglas' "remembrances" last for about 30 seconds. Rounding out the special features are some very informative deleted scenes, where you can see dialogue that made the finished film appear in slightly different settings, and sometimes with different intent. It's a neat little primer into the filmmaking process.

Final Thoughts:
Romancing the Stone is just a joy, with wonderfully fun and engaging performances by its three stars and solid direction by Zemeckis, thankfully eschewing his "has-been" status rather effectively with this feature. Featuring an inventive amalgamation of romance and action-adventure motifs, Romancing the Stone takes the best of both worlds and melds them into a very special jewel. Highly recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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