' ' Cinema Romantico: Jungle Cruise

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Jungle Cruise

“Jungle Cruise” is a spiritual successor to Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, not just because it is based on a theme park ride, God help us, but because it seeks to infused the spirit of a Golden Age adventure with modern special effects. Of course, the greatest special effect in “Pirates of the Caribbean” was not the zombie scalawags nor the octopus-like Davy Jones but, simply, Johnny Depp, as Captain Jack Sparrow, a performance I sometimes feel has become undervalued because of how far that franchise was stretched to make a buck. It is perhaps unfair to expect either Emily Blunt or Dwayne Johnson to attempt, never mind succeed, at creating something as transgressive as Captain Jack Sparrow, of course. And, in fairness, Blunt does a solid job of quoting Katharine Hepburn while adding her own aroma and flavor. Johnson, on the other hand, is painfully short on any kind of edge or unpredictability. Indeed, director Jaume Collet-Serra might well intend to give “Jungle Cruise” a “Romancing the Stone” kind of kick, but Johnson is no Jack Colton, his performance as smoothed over as the special effects. 

Set during The Great War, the plot turns on a Fountain of Youth-ish elixir, in this case the Tears of the Moon, petals from mystical healing Amazonian tree, sought by Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) for altruistic reasons even as the petals are similarly pursued by the dastardly Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) working on behalf of the Kaiser. As “Jungle Cruise” opens, Lily pilfers an arrowhead right from the under the noses of both Prince Joachim and The Royal Society, believing the artifact in tandem with a map to be the keys to unlocking the Tears of the Moon, a strong curtain-raiser in which the nimble cinematography and crack editing combine to create one of those action sequences as comical as it is rousing, all while intertwining the underlying theme of Lily’s attempts to infiltrate a hierarchal male society that will not have her even if she has more gumption and know-how than the lot of ‘em. 

This sequence bodes well, and Collet-Serra maintains it for a little while, up through Lily and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), if John Hannah in “The Mummy” were Stanford Blatch, enlisting skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) to pilot them down the Amazon. In escaping various ne’er-do-wells as they depart the dock, another zippy action sequence builds to a solid Butch and Sundance-ish revelation. Best of all, though, Collet-Serra roots the action to the real world. Granted, such veracity is not always necessary for these sorts of movies, but the further “Jungle Cruise” goes, the more its exotic plot demands exotic special effects in return, all of which are disappointingly lifeless and plastic-y, weighing the subsequent action down. Prince Joachim’s U-boat in the Amazon is an enjoyable idea that Collet-Serra can never quite render enjoyable while a scene in which Frank’s scrappy boat stares down a mammoth waterfall is stripped of all suspense in the obvious cuts between real-life interiors and phony exteriors. Worst of all, however, are the computer-generated slithery, disgusting creatures that have no business living amongst us. 

Here, your humble correspondent is of utmost use. Because this reviewer’s single greatest fear, bar none, is slithery, disgusting creatures that have no business living amongst us. And if your computer-generated slithery, disgusting creatures that have no business living amongst us do not really frighten me, you have irrefutably not done your job. No, Paul Giamatti as the ornery harbormaster is more convincing than any of these effects, even if the filmmakers and producers refused to let, as Giamatti expressed to Men’s Health, the character have a monkey who lit his cigars. It’s reminiscent of the ludicrous turn Depp took as Sparrow, which famously terrified Disney producers even as it was allowed to proceed, richly rewarding them. Now, however, we have reached a point where Depp-styled madness must be prevented at all costs.

Yet even the slithery, disgusting creatures that have no business living amongst us feel at least a little more real than the all-important romantic chemistry between the leads. Johnson has qualities as an actor. His droll line readings here are frequently on point and making a punch land like a punchline is, for him, second nature. But asking him to channel Jack Colton, never mind the Humphrey Bogart of “The African Queen”, is just too big an ask. Johnson’s character drinks incessantly but never shows the effects, which might be explained away by the plot but is more evocative of Johnson’s inherent Superman-ish air. He simply is not equipped to play a rogue. So, even if Blunt tries to sell their burgeoning love, in one underwater kiss literally grabbing the back of Johnson’s head, like she is fighting to make him romantically reciprocate, their vibe is as much brother and sister as Blunt and Whitehall, fatally damaging the denouement in which Lily makes a personal choice in the name of love and ultimately causing this cruise to founder.  

1 comment:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

Great reviews. I was wondering if the movie bore any resemblance to African Queen.