For somebody who was born after the hedonistic years that we call the 80’s (albeit only by a few months), I have always been strangely drawn to the decade that taste forgot. I guess the fact that the trends and culture that was built up in that decade didn’t just evaporate on the 1st of January 1990 though, and my formative years were filled with those same ideals and references in the same way that 2008 seems like yesterday to me!
Even my dissertation in my last year of university was focused around this idea that the 1980’s were a decade to be look back on with some sense of pride; but more than the political and economic progress which I had to focus on in that chapter of my education, it is my enjoyment of the films and music from the 80’s which have really sustained my interest in the time period. This was the time when Hollywood blockbusters and big name producers started to get a foothold – and whilst a lot of people may see that as a negative against more creative mediums, they suit me (and most of the general public) just fine.
Over the past week or so I’ve spent a good few hours of my holiday from work enjoying some rip-roaring 80’s films, and of the ones that I watched none stand out for me more than one of my favourite mini-franchises of the decade; the iconic pairing of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone (1984) and it’s sequel, Jewel of the Nile (1985). In the grand scheme of things these two films are often overlooked as the start of a franchise which could and maybe should have been something to rival that of Indiana Jones. Of course the parallels between the two are unmistakable and indeed there were a tonne of films which aimed to capitalise on the 1930’s adventure yarn type films which Spielberg and Lucas managed to emulate with their Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Some of those are admittedly quite ropey, but despite arriving on the scene 4 years after Indy, Robert Zemeckis’ first big-screen success had actually been penned in the late 70’s.
The story of how RTS came to be is one which is often romanticised itself and ended in tragedy – the film’s writer Diane Thomas was a waitress who had spent a long time finishing the script whilst working between jobs, apparently the film’s main star/producer Michael Douglas was a customer at the diner and one day she managed to convince him to read it and apparently the rest was history. There are less rose-tinted versions of this story but they all end the same, when Thomas was travelling as a passenger in the Porsche convertible (that Douglas had bought her as a thank-you for writing the film) when it crashed on the Pacific Coast Highway near L.A. and she died instantly. This happened weeks before the premiere of the second film in the series, and although she had not penned it she had helped with a few key scenes.
But back to the films and how they are a thoroughly 80’s version of an adventure tale. I will admit now that Romancing the Stone is a vastly superior film to it’s sequel, but both are worth a watch for a slice of cheesiness on a dull afternoon. RTS starts quite tongue in cheek with a Western themed novel written from a woman’s perspective, as indeed is the film set and as we know now written too. We are quickly introduced to our heroine Joan Wilder, as played by Kathleen Turner in a role which has gone on to become one of the peaks of her career. Famous bit-part actors from the 80’s are dotted throughout the film from this point, including Holland Taylor (the bossy lecturer in Legally Blonde for people who are my age) and also the recently deceased Mary Ellen Trainor, Robert Zemeckis’ wife who was one of those actresses who was seemingly in everything in the 80’s (or at least her husbands films) but never in a starring role.
The action quickly moves to Columbia for the remainder of the film where we also meet the ying to Kathleen Turner’s yang, Michael Douglas (playing chancer Jack T Colton), and crooked Danny DeVito who seems to have modelled every subsequent performance I’ve seen him in on sarcastic, cigar chewing Ralph – a sort of antihero who although is a crook is neither one of the true bad guys of the film. Every single stereotype about South America and Colombia seems to be in play here – crappy buses which crash down the sides of mountains, poverty stricken locals who can’t speak English, crashed planes filled with drugs, evil dictators and of course wealthy drug barons all feature heavily in RTS. But then again it was the 1980’s and all of these things were a reality (I think); the film manages to keep them in check and does so in a way which is accessible for audiences of all ages, there is very little bad language or sexual content here.
Zemeckis’ film bounds from one thing to another but all the while is this simmering chemistry between Douglas and Turner, a partnership which could (and again should) have seen them through many more movies together had Douglas been a little younger and Turner did not encounter the health and alcohol issues which eventually plagued her career. It’s impossible not to roll your eyes at certain aspects of the plot and like DeVito’s character you do question whether a seasoned chancer like Douglas would actually fall for up-tight, stereotypical New Yorker Turner, but nevertheless you want it to be true and much like one of the the novels which Turner’s character writes, you know that the soppy romance will win out in the end.
Although the crocodile-infested climax atop an abandoned water-fortress in Cartagena has always struck me as rather drawn out and tedious, it does at least give the opportunity for Turner to defeat the bad guy all by herself and then see Douglas dive off the top of the castle to find the crocodile which has swallowed the all-important ‘stone’ (actually a large emerald). In what is a very 80’s and quite predictable end, love sick and forlorn Turner returns to her New York apartment after successfully flogging her ‘best ever’ novel based on her experiences, to find a f*ck-off massive yacht waiting for her, where they sail off into the sunset, or at least the boat is towed down New York’s street’s in a thoroughly fitting ending to a modern yarn.
Given this very neat little ending some people have said that there was no need for a sequel to RTS, and indeed the absence of both the original scriptwriter and director should maybe have suggested that to do one quite so quickly was ill-advised. Kathleen Turner herself was so desperate to get out of her contract to do a sequel that she only returned after a $25m lawsuit was threatened, and although there was no repeat of her arguments with Zemeckis (as he was no longer at the helm), you do slightly get the feeling that a lot of the cast are simply going through the motions when watching Jewel of the Nile. Again the film starts in the same way with some of Joan Wilder’s literary creations being in peril before coming together for a kiss, just before we are again dropped right back into the 1980’s with her typewriter (!) getting splashed by a water-skiing Douglas in lurid swim shorts amongst the backdrop of the French Riviera.
Of course the success of Turner’s character in between the films (and the fact they found an emerald) means that they now spend their days in various ports around the world on Douglas’ yacht. But all is not perfect in paradise and after a few predictable (yet completely unrealistic) arguments they decide to take a break – note that ‘taking a break’ was a thing before Friends! Danny DeVito pops up again inexplicably and teams up with Douglas after his yacht is blown up and Turner is hurried off to some far flung Arab state by a Sadam Hussein-alike. I can remember that as recently as 10 years ago that JotN was regularly a feature of Channel 5’s Sunday film rotation, but I suspect that the growing issues in the Middle East with factions such as ISIS would make TV execs think twice before showing a film which glamourises life among Islamic militants…
It’s those same militants who Douglas and DeVito team up with initially, with Turner being kept in a glass prison by the evil dictator – ie she is allowed to explore anywhere and ask the right questions, but no pictures and no exposure to anti-dictator spiel. As with the previous film there are a lot of cheesy 80’s stereotypes about Middle Eastern leaders – of course there is a Ferrari, helicopter and even a fighter jet, but everyone else in this seemingly tiny city lives in poverty. A few awkward questions later and Turner finds herself imprisoned, just as the rebels turn up at the city gates with their 80’s boomboxes and swords – unfortunate given the current obsession for beheading that such people seem to have in real life nowadays.
Oh yes and then we have this mystical ‘jewel of the Nile’, which everyone apart from our heroes seem to know is in fact a person – some geeky librarian guy who seems to be a religious prophet. Mr Villain is keeping him captive and intends to convince the entire Arab world that he is the real prophet and wants to unite all factions under one leadership for nefarious purposes, using some dodgy British special effects whizz whose work is bettered by today’s most basic TV magicians. I’m not saying that this plot is any more unbelievable than Romancing the Stone’s, but surely back in the 1980’s Western powers would have wanted to support right-wing militarised dictators who loved Ferraris and fancy watches? Either way from here on in the film sort of tumbles into farce a bit.
Firstly Douglas and Turner escape the city along with the Jewel, while DeVito is squashed underneath a donkey’s backside (yes really), escaping just in time for the rebels to moan about our heroes ‘taking the jewel’, not kidnapping or referring to the jewel as a person, as that would have been far too easy. They escape in the baddie’s fighter jet, which despite having it’s wings knocked off and being shot at numerous times, is able to act like an easily manouverable car which drives them along the desert road and into a handy sandstorm. From there we have a bit of questionable racism with an African tribe and a bit of excitement on the big boss’ personal train, before a show down at the big shindig with all the fireworks.
Cue lots of shooting, acrobatics, fire and a rather humorous bit where Turner and Douglas are left to die in a situation identical to one from her novel ‘what kind of sicko thinks up this stuff anyway – Douglas’. Predictably our heroes save the day again and the warring Arab hordes unite under Mr Librarian, whose only power appears to be the ability to state the obvious and turn rocks into butterflies. JotN is not a bad film, but it falls into the trap of becoming a parody of itself which is never a good thing, especially when the first set quite a high bar.
Undoubtedly there was still money to be made in the franchise, but with Turner’s reluctance to star in another sequel and the move towards more special effects centered blockbusters there was never much real hope for the proposed third film in the series. Douglas, Turner and DeVito did team up again in 1989’s ‘War of the Roses’ with financial and critical success though, and in some ways it’s fun to look at that film as the final film in the trilogy – where Douglas and Turner’s characters have settled into marital boredom and then decide they can’t stand each other, all the while being overseen by DeVito’s lawyer. Maybe that would have been a bit of a depressing end to the light-hearted nature of these two films, but it would have at least given fans a better ending than yet another scene of the two on a boat, of course driting down the Nile.
However that closing scene does give us one of the best songs in ending credits history, and if you’ve not been tempted to watch either of these films then at least listen to it and give yourself the chance to smile on this cloudy July morning!