At first glance, “The Lost City” has all the hallmarks of “Romancing the Stone” (and, to a lesser extent, its 1985 sequel, “The Jewel of the Nile”) repackaged for millennials and Zoomers.
We get Sandra Bullock assuming the Kathleen Turner role as a romance novelist who holds the key to the whereabouts of a remote hidden treasure. Daniel Radcliffe steps into the Danny DeVito part, albeit with more urbanity, as the novelist’s ruthless kidnapper with a passing Napoleon complex, who’s seeking said treasure. And Brad Pitt fills in for Michael Douglas as a raffish man of adventure who comes to the novelist’s rescue — though here in a reduced capacity.
That’s a good thing because Channing Tatum is the one who actually shares top billing with Bullock, and his Fabio-esque character is an original creation that helps the new film steer clear of a potential copyright claim.
At the prompting of her publisher, Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the reclusive Loretta Sage (Bullock) reluctantly agrees to attend a convention with her cover model, Alan (Tatum). He is her fictitious character Dash incarnate — or so he and her fans think, much to her dismay. For the occasion, she dons a tight sequined fuchsia jumpsuit that gives her “wedgie in the back and in the front,” the sole purpose being to manufacture slapstick when Loretta literally struggles to sit down for a chat with the event’s moderator (Bowen Yang).
Billionaire Fairfax (Radcliffe) claims to be one of Loretta’s devotees and sticks Post-It Flags throughout his copy of her book. He is convinced that she can help him decipher a clue that will lead him to the titular lost city and its valuables. When she refuses to indulge his folly, he forcibly puts her on his private jet, and off they fly. Alan notices Loretta is missing, and he remembers meeting mercenary and former Navy SEAL Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) at a meditation retreat called Touching Your Inner Self, whom he determines is the right man for the rescue mission. Thankfully, Loretta’s coordinates can be tracked because of her Apple Watch.
The delusional Alan recklessly follows along to prove he is more than just a pretty face. Meanwhile, before escaping, Loretta purloins Fairfax’s clue. Having come so close to solving the mystery, she seizes the moment and decides to have a go at treasure-hunting herself with Alan.
Loretta represents a huge missed opportunity for Bullock (who also produces) to vamp it up and stretch her range. The role should call for the kind of airs-and-panache performance Meryl Streep delivered in “She-Devil”; instead, Bullock clings to her beloved girl-next-door screen persona. We’d root for her in a rom-com because she doesn’t seem like the type who even believes in romance, much less writes romance novels. She’s funny here. But does her character ring true? Not quite.
Tatum is typecast as the himbo, which he brings off exceptionally well. And he gets campy, especially when sporting the long blond Fabio wig and a billowy shirt, so at least one of the film’s two leads exhibits an understanding of the assignment. He does have great chemistry with Bullock, in a Keanu Reeves sort of way.
Radcliffe is an inspired choice as the villain, though honestly he too could benefit from some brooding scenery-chewing. Pitt, at least, has lots of fun with his bit role.
After two years of cloistering due to the pandemic, audiences might relish the prospect of immersing themselves in a swashbuckling adventure featuring exotic locales. The Dominican Republic locations are scenic, though the visuals here fall somewhere between “Jungle Cruise” and “Uncharted,” other recent entries in the genre.
Looking back, “Romancing the Stone” and “The Jewel of the Nile” (and the Indiana Jones franchise, for that matter) were filled with grotesque and offensive racial stereotypes typical for the 1980s. In that regard, “The Lost City” and its contemporaries are far less problematic. True to the moment, “The Lost City” offers better representation of characters of color, with Randolph and Oscar Nuñez receiving some memorable screen time.
Directors Adam Nee and Aaron Nee, who share screenwriting credits with Oren Uziel and Dana Fox, seem like odd choices given their track record: 2006’s “The Last Romantic,” a New York–set microbudget indie comedy that bypassed a theatrical release, and 2015’s “Band of Robbers,” a modern reimagining of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that grossed a paltry $20,555 domestically. Visually, “The Lost City” marks a huge departure from the grittiness of their first two films.
Here, they bypass any plot plausibility of plot to focus on the escapist fantasy. (Fairfax never gives Loretta a bathroom break while she’s held hostage, with no visible consequences.) After the quick-witted and action-packed first act, the film switches gears into full romance-novel mode. Unfortunately, “The Lost City” never manages to recover once Pitt’s rousing cameo is over. While pleasant, “The Lost City” is unlikely to satisfy those thirsting for action and adventure.
“The Lost City” opens in U.S. theaters March 25.