Why Did I Watch It? Listening to the Blank Check podcast series on Robert Zemeckis
Joan Wilder is a successful romance novelist, and a hopeless romantic. She is also something of a nebbish. But when her sister gets mixed up with some bad people, she is forced out of her comfort zone on an impromptu rescue mission. Out of her depth, in Colombia, she runs into Jack T. Coulton, an adventurous type looking to make his fortune. He’s willing to help Joan, for a price. And the T? That stands for ‘trustworthy’, so you know there’s nothing to worry about.
At one time, this is exactly what you wanted out of a movie. A couple of attractive leads, a few laughs, an exotic location, and a sinister villain. And there is a thing, and everyone is chasing after it. In other words: exactly the sort of mid-size film that Hollywood completely lost interest in. It doesn’t have huge set pieces, there is no CGI, and it won’t capture that all important youth demographic. It was, however, successful enough to kick off a franchise, albeit one that was abandoned after one sequel; the dismal ‘Jewel of the Nile’. Occasionally there is talk of a reboot, or a streaming series.
For now, we have this, and it remains a blast. After a couple of early career flops – ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Used Cars’ – Robert Zemeckis brought his manic pacing and uninhibited enthusiasm to this project, and struck gold. This is the only film from his early career that he did not write or co-write; he was hired by producer Michael Douglas, a fan of ‘Used Cars’, and it set him on his way. The film was a huge success, and Zemeckis had creative freedom on his next; he would co-write and direct ‘Back to the Future’ the following year.
This was also an early career high point for Kathleen Turner. The actress had made a splashy debut in ‘Body Heat’, playing a femme fatale, and was in danger of being typecast; the studio could not see her as a bookish author, but Douglas persisted. It proved an inspired choice, and Turner is wonderful. She and Douglas have top notch chemistry, and their scenes crackle like something out of the 1940s. Danny De Vito is also great, in a supporting role as one of the villains. Douglas, Turner and De Vito got on so well they would re-team not just for this movie’s sequel, but De Vito’s savage black comedy ‘War of the Roses’, in 1989. They remain close friends.
While the film has held up well, some aspects of it do seem funny from a contemporary perspective. It has a very 80s, American take on a foreign country as a dangerous and barbaric place; whatever Bogota was like back then, I doubt there was livestock at the airport. Films of this era, and earlier, often depict anywhere not the USA as terrifying, or wildly exotic. But as the internet and budget airlines have helped open up the world, this perspective has receded. Our planet has grown much smaller in the last 40 years, and here is a reminder.
One footnote: I was surprised to see the screenwriter, Diane Thomas, had not written any other movies. This was an original spec script, and a huge hit, and it ought to have lead to a successful career. It turns out, shortly after this film’s release she was killed in a car accident. She was only 39 when she died, this is the only film she wrote. Her partner was driving at the time of the accident; the car was a Porsche, given as gift by Douglas to celebrate the success of this movie.