I must have watched Romancing the Stone several hundred times as a teenager; constantly rewinding the video (yes, the video - no fancy DVDs back then) so I could get my part just perfect. What’s that? Oh, yes – when I say ‘my part’, I obviously mean ‘my part in my own head’; listening to my teachers drone on at school was made much less painful if I spent the lessons daydreaming that I was Kathleen Turner, facing peril at every turn before being rescued by reluctant hero Michael Douglas. And this was the attractive 1980’s Michael Douglas of course, all wavy hair, open-necked shirts and great comic timing.
Turner plays Joan Wilder, a romance novelist living in New York City with only her cat for company. She gets swept away by her love stories, and dreams of meeting a man who matches up to the muscled macho men that she creates in her books. Her own desires are laid bare for us in the first scene of the film when we watch the end of her latest romp (a Western) play out on screen. Joan narrates the action in a voice-over, before the scene fades and we are brought back to reality, or at least Joan’s reality, which is her sobbing over her typewriter in her pyjamas as she completes the manuscript.
We then see her ‘end of book celebrations’, which quite frankly aren’t up to much. Although her cat seems to enjoy them. Her apartment is cosy, but is full of evidence that proves her life revolves around her work. Book awards, book posters, post-it notes with reminders on and a mostly empty fridge (save for cat food – he is the number one male in her life at the moment) show that there aren’t many other influences in there.
Late at night we see the first signs that something big is going to happen to Joan, although she doesn’t know it just yet. The phone rings and wakes her up, and we see the man on the other end of the line. He’s standing in the shadows, wearing disturbing leather gloves (I don’t know how leather gloves can actually be disturbing, but trust me, these are) and is holding one of Joan’s books. He doesn’t speak.
In the morning - night time interruption forgotten – Joan is off to a meeting with her publisher. We now see what she wears when she goes out, and it’s not going to win her many male admirers, despite the fact that she is actually beautiful. She dresses down, in drab colours and uninspiring fashions. Now, I don’t want to jump the gun here, but the set-up of her lonely life – which is a pale imitation of the ones she conjures up for her characters - and her ugly duckling appearance make her ripe for an adventure that transforms her into a heroine straight from her own pages. Let’s see, shall we?
As she leaves her apartment her neighbour hands her some post that the postman couldn’t fit through her letterbox – a package postmarked Colombia. Joan doesn’t have time to open it, and she puts it in her bag before going out onto the street to find a cab. Once she is gone we see the mysterious man again, this time breaking into her apartment and knifing a janitor who gets in his way. Joan’s life is obviously in danger. We later learn that the package contained a treasure map, sent to her by her brother-in-law before he was murdered. The map is obviously a key part of his killing, and whoever is responsible is not going to rest until it’s been found.
His wife, Joan’s sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor), then rings Joan to say that she’s been taken prisoner, and will also be killed unless Joan takes the map to her kidnappers. She has not been taken hostage by the same man who is after Joan however, but the two comedy villains who have also got wind of the treasure map, and want their share of the spoils. Ira (Zack Norman) and his cousin Ralph (Danny DeVito) manage to inject clumsiness into every scene they appear in, thus lightening the tone of the film.
So, let’s speed things up, and get Joan to where the action is. We’re now in Colombia and on a bus heading towards the city of Cartagena, or at least Joan thinks it is. She asked a local which bus she should get on, but it turns out that this local was in fact the man who ransacked her home, and mutilated Elaine’s husband, Colonel Zolo (played by Manuel Ojeda). Ralph sees her get on the wrong bus and follows her in his ridiculously small car, of which more later.
Joan is headed into the middle of the jungle, where we suspect that Zolo is going to dispose of her too and steal the map, but thankfully she is rescued in a timely fashion by Jack T. Colton (Douglas), who is a bird exporter, and a fellow American. Under fire from Jack, Zolo commandeers Ralph’s car to get away.
As Colton has rescued Joan we assume he is going to be her hero, but actually to begin with he’s not that much of one. He’s more interested in looking out for himself than for her, but he soon recognises the potential in helping a rich lady escape trouble. For a financial reward he agrees to escort her to safety, but first they have to escape from Zolo and his private army of military police. We are allowed a glimpse into Colton’s dreams at this point when we see a picture of a boat that he keeps with him – now we know where his ambition lies. And as this is Colombia, we can deduce that the fact he is selling feathered friends rather than making a quick buck from drugs means that he is probably a good man.
Jack and Joan spend the night hiding in the wreck of a plane once used to smuggle marijuana. Jack finds the treasure map and wheedles the truth out of Joan as to what she is doing in Colombia. He tries to convince her that they should look for the treasure themselves, giving them something to bargain with to get Elaine back, but Joan assumes that he is suggesting this so that he can claim the treasure for himself. As they get higher and drunker we see the obvious chemistry between them, but is Jack to be trusted or not?
In the morning they continue with their journey, encountering drug baron Juan (Alfonso Arau) who coincidentally is a lover of Joan’s books, and helps them to flee from Zolo’s private army of military police who are hot on their heels. Whilst this is going on Jack spots a landmark that is featured on the map. He doesn’t mention this to Joan...
The pair arrive in a town, where Joan checks in with the kidnappers (although Ralph is actually in close proximity to her, without her knowing) and arranges to meet with them in the morning. She gives Jack his money; his duty to her is now over, but they both seem reluctant to part. Jack suggests that he buys her dinner – is this to spend more time with Joan, or to get hold of the map?
The town is having a party, and resplendent in the new clothes Jack has bought them, they hit it. There are lights and music; it’s the perfect setting for romance to blossom, and over dinner it appears to. This scene is brilliantly directed, with the camera swapping between their building chemistry and the bungling Ralph, who is crawling under the restaurant tables to try and steal the map from Joan’s bag. He very nearly achieves this, until a large and loud Colombian woman finds him weaving round her legs, and starts to beat him up. Meanwhile Jack and Joan dance and kiss, oblivious to everything apart from each other.
Lying together in bed later the couple talk about sailing around the world together on Jack’s dream boat before Joan challenges him as to why he hasn’t yet taken the map from her; she knows he spotted the treasure map landmark earlier on. She tells him that she also agrees that they should find the treasure before meeting the kidnappers, but they will have to hand it over if her sister is in danger. Without Joan seeing, Jack takes the map out from where he’s hidden it under the mattress, and returns it to her bag. Aaaah, he is a nice guy after all!
When morning comes round Jack and Joan realise that Zolo is closing in on them again, and they jump from their hotel window and steal a car to escape. Whose car is it? It’s Ralph’s of course, and he’s asleep on the back seat. Following the map, they eventually find the treasure - a large heart-shaped emerald - but as we know, Ralph is right there with them. Wielding a gun, he commandeers the stone and comments that at least he’s plain old stealing it from her, not trying to ‘romance’ it out like Jack is.
It’s time for Zolo and his men to make another appearance – this time spectacularly swarming over the hill and down towards them. Ralph runs off as fast as his little legs can carry him, although not so fast that Jack can’t rugby tackle him down and reclaim the emerald. Joan guns the car, Jack jumps in and she accelerates away, taking a wrong turn somewhere along the line and ending up in the river. The river turns in to rapids, the rapids give way to a waterfall, and over they go, giving us a few moments of held breath before we see them both surface and swim for shore.
Unfortunately Joan is on one river bank and Jack, complete with stone, is on the other. Joan is riled, to put it mildly, and shouts across that he obviously planned everything so that he ended up with the treasure. Jack is put out, and yells that she should continue on to Cartagena with the map, and he will meet her there. She doesn’t believe him, but gunshots from Zolo send the pair running for cover in different directions.
The next time we see Joan, she’s made it to Cartagena. She’s been through a lot, but survived, and she’s stronger for it. She checks into her hotel, rings Ira to arrange their meeting, and then calls the front desk to see if Jack has arrived. He hasn’t.
When night falls, Joan takes a water taxi to a desolate tower at the port and meets with Ira. She gives him the map, he gives her Elaine and tells them that they are free to leave. Before they can leave however they see Jack, who has been captured by Zolo’s men. Joan lies to Zolo that they couldn’t find the stone, but he doesn’t believe her and drags her over to an alligator pit. He cuts her hand and holds it over the pit demanding that she hands it over. As the creatures start to move towards her bleeding hand Jack shakes the emerald free and it drops out his trouser leg on to his boot. He kicks it up in the air towards the pit, Zolo reaches out to catch it and looks briefly triumphant until an alligator rises up and bites off his hand, complete with the stone.
The next few minutes are a hail of bullets, as Jack gets hold of a gun and starts shooting. Zolo’s men return fire, Joan and Elaine make to escape, but Zolo (who is just a little bit cross now) grabs a large piece of wood and follows them. Jack spies the alligator crawling towards the sea, and hangs on to its tail for dear life. When Joan screams for him to help her he is briefly torn between keeping hold of the emerald and saving her, but his love for her wins out and he ruefully watches his prize disappear into the murky depths. To get to Joan he now has to climb a high wall, and by the time he has done this Joan has managed to pick up the wood that Zolo had and give him an almighty thump on the bundle of nerve endings where his hand should be. That being fairly painful makes Zolo loses his balance, land on a lamp and set himself on fire, before falling into the alligator pit. Nobody checks, but we’re pretty sure he’s dead.
Jack finally gets to Joan and they embrace. Happy ending? Not quite. The approaching sirens signal police arriving, and Jack tells Joan he has to go, as he’s wanted by them. He kisses her, then dives off the side of the tower into the water. Joan is heartbroken that he’s left her. We fade out.
When we see Joan again it’s obvious that she’s a different woman from the one we first saw in her flat. Stunning and confident, she stands gazing out the window as her publisher Gloria (Holland Taylor) cries whilst reading Joan’s latest book, which is based on her adventure. Gloria tells Joan that she’s a hopeless romantic. Joan smiles and corrects her. ‘Hopeful romantic.’
As she returns home, she sees it. A huge boat, on a truck, stopped in the road with Jack standing on the deck. She climbs on board and Jack explains that he caught the crocodile (let’s suspend disbelief over that bit, it’s meant to be a romantic moment), had it made into boots (which he is now wearing), sold the emerald and bought the boat. Their new adventure can begin, and Joan has finally found her hero.
Romancing the Stone was a box office hit in 1984 and led to a sequel in 1985, The Jewel of the Nile, which also featured Turner, Douglas and DeVito.