Can’t believe this romp is getting such sniffy reviews. But the reason is simple enough. Critics don’t watch it with an audience (except possibly of other critics) – on Rotten Tomatoes critics scored this at 63% while audiences rated it 93%. I saw it as part of my Monday Night Cinema Double Bill – along with Suicide Squad which critics adored. But while I thought Suicide Squad was a blast and very original, I laughed more at Jungle Cruise and I was much more involved. The difference – Suicide Squad is slick and cynical with hardly a single empathetic character, which is an easier target these days, but Jungle Cruise goes for something more difficult to achieve, a genuine warm-hearted movie that doesn’t disappear into romantic slush.
Sure, Jungle Cruise recycles not just Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – which itself recycled just about everything – but Ghost (1990), Highlander (1986), The African Queen (1951), Romancing the Stone (1984) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), but I don’t think that took away from its originality. The story made sense and the clues involved in the treasure hunt aspect of the picture were well worked out, delivering quite a few surprises. But mostly, there was terrific charisma between Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.
Roguish Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), with a line in lame jokes (which, by the way, had the audience roaring), operates an Amazon river cruise before the First World War where most of what the passengers see is manufactured. Explorer and accomplished burglar Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) mistakes him for riverboat magnate Nilo (Paul Giametti) but after Frank saves her from a tiger (his tame beast, it turns out) she hires him to find a fabled treasure. Also in the hunt are ruthless German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and Spaniard Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez).
Both Wolff and Houghton are given great opening scenes, he proving what a con man he is, she more than capable in a man’s world, where such is the antipathy to female archaeologists that her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) has to deliver her lecture for her. There’s action by the bucketload, quite a few Indiana Jones-type escapes, shooting the rapids, encounters with dangerous animals – snakes, piranha fish etc – and natives. Prince Joachim has one hell of a river vessel and quite a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s not just that the pace never lets up, but it is generally delivered with verve.
Interestingly, there is a nod towards diversity in that MacGregor is gay, a fact accepted by Wolff. Equally interesting, MacGregor has a pivotal transitional moment as his character starts out in one mode and ends in another. And Lily gives the finger to the male-dominated academic world.
Paul Giamatti (TV’s Billions, 2016-2021) only has a small part but it’s a delight to see him make any big screen appearance at all and Jesse Plemons (Judas and the Black Messiah, 2021) takes on the rather unusual role of the German bad guy. Even though Edgar Ramirez (Yes Day, 2021) spends most of the movie in disguise one way or another, his intensity still shines through.
Jaume Collet-Sera made his name directing Liam Neeson thrillers like Unknown (2011) – one of my favorite pictures – and Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and The Commuter (2018) but this is a big step up not just in terms of budget and the occasionally complex story line but also in the romance and comedy elements and in my eyes he more than delivers. Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, 2017), Glen Ficarra (Focus, 2013) and John Requa (The Bad News Bears, 2005) all had a hand in the screenplay and James Newton Howard (News of the World, 2020) has written a great score.
I’ve no idea whether Jungle Cruise has anything in common with the ride at the Disney theme park and I didn’t care. This is not just great family viewing but for audiences of all ages who just want to be – wait for it – entertained. But Disney may well have shot itself in the foot by streaming this at the same time as opening it in cinemas for I bet you this will get terrific word-of-mouth and they should have let it sit in cinemas for months to gather the benefits. An ideal summer movie of the old-fashioned kind.