Once upon a vastly different timeline, adventure films and romantic comedies had a knack to intertwine themselves, often boldly. Think Romancing the Stone or The African Queen. Tales of stirring love gone off the rails in hilarity while braving non-urban elements, and less often, a deranged antagonist. Admittedly, the taste for this extremely specific genre offshoot has gone unfettered for a period uncountable. It takes a self-referential spin like The Lost City to circle audiences back around to just why a good globetrotting treasure hunt can equal a plain old fun ride, aware of a finite formula, and ready to bust it down.
Once a scholar and treasure seeker with her late husband, Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) has fallen into an uncompelling pattern. Trading fact for fiction as a writer of steamy adventure romance novels, she’s facing a midlife crisis upon the release of her twentieth in a series. She does finish off this newest novel no problem, although an inevitable creative block has no less slowed her down. A point of staggering contingency as Loretta sludges through on a promo tour with cover model Dash McMahon (Channing Tatum).
As her manager Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) puts it, sexiness sells more over intellect. The latter is best left stoking the fire of one Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), a shrewd billionaire who’s had his eye on a piece of treasure buried somewhere on a remote island with an unpredictable volcano. He kidnaps Loretta, hopeful she can decipher a series of clues leading to the priceless bauble. Dash, whose street name is Alan, bears the responsibility of retrieving her. Trainer and tracker Jack (Brad Pitt) can only take him so far, before he and Loretta go missing, with only their wits and insecurities to guide them along.
And it’s through this mismatch much of that spark conquers through in The Lost City. An original enough tale whose inspiration is far from subtle, the way directors and co-writers Adam and Aaron Nee (Band of Robbers) see it. The level of energy is as off the scale as much as its romantic charisma. Something I’d personally doubted between Bullock, the still flexible screen player, and Tatum, the gruff, dexterous, youthful beefcake. One’s burned out by her own work, having lost her genius following her husband’s passing. The other’s gone by on luck with his career as a Fabio-style model; without those covers, Alan wouldn’t have a career, and he knows there could be more to his life than being the pretty boy. And that alone is an admirable avenue to turn to, giving the one-note himbo type added depth.
With the Nee brothers, accompanied by Dana Fox (Cruella) and Oren Uziel (Mortal Kombat) as secondary scribes, their consistent north star is the natural comic ability shared between their more-than-capable leads. Anything less would’ve driven this effort deeper into the discount bin. With its emphasis on a hefty card deck of set pieces and above-standard adventure movie gags – leeches, severe weather, and chases on motorbikes – the fear is a prevalent factor. But that’s what also gives Bullock the space to take a deep breath, remind a waiting audience of her comic skill. And after a provokingly menial drama like last year’s The Unforgivable catapulted her off the deep end, this far lighter aperitif brings her back to the surface.
Paired with Tatum, who’s been on a real tear himself (please give Dog a watch sometime), it’s a captive breath of air riding high on that charisma, and neither plays it straight. There’s no damsel in distress/effervescent masculine icon angle beyond what could be in Loretta’s book. There’s simply a pair of flawed humans whose limits and professional experience are both assessed in a heightened extreme, living the fiction, while very aware of where it differs. Never having ventured out of a major city either alone or at all, it’s a great new challenge. Both Bullock and Tatum ride that wave, admittedly tiptoeing past several missteps negating that humor tempo.
Not every gag or plot thread fulfills its promise, such as a lengthy barrage of riffs. Loretta’s struggle to move around in a rented sequin dress and heels, a running gag that did circle back to being funny. Beth intervening and heading down to the island herself in the name of damage control, carrying a witless cargo pilot (an underutilized Oscar Nunez) along. Abigail’s cronies trying to interject reason amid their lingering job security. Or Alan being aloof in combat versus Pitt, whose presence is all but fleeting. He winds up delivering the film’s strongest case for focus for the brief period we’re graced upon.
All this while Radcliffe brings the levity, in what could be the first legitimately solid villain character for the calendar year. His laughable eccentrics level out where the adventure stops a little short, razor-sharp asperity equally merging in on that fictitious impossibility. Pinar Toprak’s (Captain Marvel) sprightly musical undertones and Jonathan Sela’s (Deadpool 2) make no quiet effort to complete the picture, enveloping the viewer a little deeper into a refined variation on the imaginary. The accuracy comes with expert location scouting around the Dominican Republic, eye-catching vistas be damned.
For what this modernized spin on what Zemeckis made immortal in his sleep manages to achieve, it’s still not anywhere near a perfect take on that exact same formula. Those specified extraneous elements do as little as Tatum’s penchant to stay within the boundaries of that muscular dim bulb trope. The latter may be a non-issue; eventually, we see him challenge even that mere quandary as the routine veers off a familiar path, dares to be a bit metaphysical. All told, I had no problem allowing myself to be impressed by what The Lost City can, and will challenge to its inscribed genre, and for a waiting viewer. He and Bullock share effusive chemistry worth more than one team-up if the future can promise such a cinematic prodigy to occur in multiples. On the first go-around, that potential is far from extinct. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Lost City arrive in theaters on March 25; rated PG-13 for violence and some bloody images, suggestive material, partial nudity and language; 112 minutes.