The good news is that the chivalric male does exist. The bad news is that he’s a work in progress. That’s the argument behind this week’s head-to-head anyway, two films with enough in common to warrant a boxed set, along with” Robin Hood”, ”As Good As It Gets” and anything starring Kurt Russell.
”Romancing the Stone” was the first of several films by Spielberg protege Robert Zemeckis that mixed action, comedy and special effects to great success. “Like what?” you ask? Hello…McFly?! It’s hard to imagine now, even as rumors of a remake are buzzing, but Stone was an unexpected hit for Fox in its day. Accusations of being a “distaff Raiders rip-off” by the reviewers of Time Magazine didn’t spook many a viewer away. The screenplay, penned by the late Diane Thomas, is a brisk playful ride with enough action to keep any guy friends from having to put an empty seat between them. Yes, it’s a rare film where males, females and couples can sit side-by-side and feel completely comfortable with their…whatever.
The low down: Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is a successful writer of romance novels, the kind that stereotypically melt women and impel men to slap their own foreheads. We meet her as she’s finishing her latest, and are given the privilege of seeing it on screen as she narrates in swooning prose. “But suddenly there he was, my beloved Jesse. My heart leapt as I watched him ride near. I could barely wait to feel the warmth of his touch.” (Tissue or brown paper bag, it’s up to you.) Jesse then somehow mounts his horse with his lady still in his arms. He must work out. Back to Joan’s reality now; she sits at her typewriter in tears. Is this what women want? It’s at least what Joan wants. This is why she’s single and has conversations with her cat. The men that populate her home of New York are no match for the swashbuckling types that she writes about. A pan through one Manhattan lounge shows us what Joan is up against outside the indulgence of her imagination: nerds, dullards and the kind of men that wink before they even say hello. No thanks. She wants her own Jesse.
In a ploy stripped from the pages of a Harlequin Romance paperback then, Joan is compelled to Colombia to bargain for her kidnapped sister’s life with a treasure map mailed to her by her recently deceased brother-in-law. Okee dokee. But why is Joan’s sister so nonchalant about being held captive? And why do the kidnappers/smugglers entrust the deed to a local kid swinging a bolo? Not questions for this genre fortunately. As long as girl meets boy to goad the wheels of romance into motion, we’re expected to put up with a certain amount of contrivance. So, with Joan now lost in the jungle and at the mercy of the story’s real villain, the switchblade-wielding treasure-seeking Zolo, her paramour finally arrives in the form of Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). The thing is, he’s no white knight.
Which brings us to Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu. “If you would take, you must first give. This is the beginning of intelligence.” Given the number of similarities between Stone and Six Days Seven Nights, one might suspect its writer Michael Browning of having given someone very much indeed. But there are no accusations of plagiarism here, only observations and unsupported opinions. All the same, there is a definite likeness. Ivan Reitman (”Legal Eagles”, ”Ghostbusters”) directed the story of a magazine editor whose South Pacific getaway finds unexpected adventure after crash landing on a tropical island. Robin Monroe (Anne Heche) is the somewhat uppity New York journalist and Quinn (Harrison Ford) the boozy pilot-for-hire who becomes stranded with her during a lightning storm. As a castaway, Robin is initially every bit as survival-challenged as Joan Wilder. She shoots a flare at a passing airliner and has an awkward run-in with a water-snake. But she’s also less open to any romantic advances as her boyfriend (David Schwimmer) has recently proposed marriage. As many of us know though, time apart has a way of uncovering certain truths about others and ourselves, especially in matters of love. By the time Robin and Quinn begin to warm up to each other, they’re given a more urgent need to work together – pirates. No swords, just automatics.
Now this is quite a job. Picking the better of these two romantic comedies is like choosing between in-flight meals; each is a very similar experience. Stone and Six Days both follow the bread crumbs laid out by the genre well enough: lure boy and girl into each other’s comfort zone, keep them there as they scratch at each other’s throats, then gradually bring them around to a rather surprising reality – I’m a better person with you than without. The scratching comes easy in both cases, mostly on account of the men (I’m almost ashamed to say). Jack and Quinn are cut from the same cloth, expatriots who’ve chosen to live without the complications that come with a conventional life. They look out for number one. For all his bravado in the face of Zolo and his treasure-hunting mercenaries, Jack isn’t above charging Joan a sum of money to escort her out of the mountains or Xeroxing her map so he can find the goods for himself. He wants to buy a sailboat. Quinn meanwhile is a divorcee cynical about love after a failed marriage. His personal philosophies do nothing to impress Robin. “You know how a woman gets a man excited?” he asks her. “She shows up. That’s it. We’re guys. We’re easy.” I can imagine a male audience member or two cursing Quinn under their breath, as he gives away all their secrets.
Stone is the greater, faster-paced adventure however, with enough chases, shootouts and location changes to disqualify it as a chick flick. There’s a funny sub-plot involving one of the kidnappers/smugglers and his clubfooted attempts at catching up with Joan and the map. He’s played by Danny DeVito, an actor who commands every inch of the frame regardless what percentage of it he fills. Six Days gives a steadier supply of laughs though I feel, or it might just be Ford. After years as a power action star, his performance here in his first comic lead (Working Girl being a supporting role) is incredibly natural. There’s a scene shortly after they crash when their personalities come to right angles, and Robin and Quinn begin verbally attacking each other. “You talk too much. You’re opinionated. You’re stubborn, sarcastic and stuck up! Your ass is too narrow and your tits are too small!” says Quinn. Hardly Shakespeare, but coming from Ford it’s pleasantly brazen.
The name of this game is romance though, as I see it, and without it the films will sputter. Stone has it. Jack buys Joan a pendant and she tells him he’s the best time she’s ever had. They dance together and share an exhilerating ride in a drug czar’s truck. If that’s not the making of something I don’t know what is. The problem is in the penultimate scene, the sister’s rescue. Joan finds herself grappling with a bloodthirsty Zolo while Jack tries to keep an oversized gator from escaping into the sea. It’s swallowed the priceless treasure, an emerald. His sailboat! Then, obviously in distress, Joan shouts his name and Jack…weighs the options. Weighs the options. Joan or jewel? Jewel or Joan? Yes, it’s played for laughs and yes he eventually lets the gator go, but I think it unlocks the connection between these two. Until the sequel, the most important person in Jack’s life is still arguably Jack. Quinn knows better. When he finally hurts Robin in that film’s own penultimate scene, it’s her heart and not her health. Nothing a romantic mad dash to the airport won’t cure. Original? No, but it feels right.
And the “winner” is: Six Days Seven Nights