Jungle Cruise: Script overboard!
There have been movies based on 45 rpm singles (Ode to Billy Joe, Harper Valley P.T.A.) T.V. shows (Downton Abbey, Barney’s Great Adventure), toys (Ouija, The LEGO Movie), and comic books too numerous to mention, but never has a dearth of inspiration been more unmistakable than when a studio tries to dramatize a theme park attraction. Hollywood could greenlight another hundred Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and unless one was signed by Scorsese, I’d avoid them all. So why this? The AC crapped out halfway through Stillwater (it was going nowhere slowly) and this was the only film playing that I’d yet to see. Be my guest, you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s 127 minutes to nowhere on Jungle Cruise.
Disney was in the news last week, publicly haggling with Scarlett Johansson over a $20 million lawsuit filed by the actress/producer that claimed the studio breached their contract by simultaneously releasing Black Widow in theatres and on TV. Why is it that no one gripes when a baseball player rakes in millions by hitting a ball with a stick or an Indy 500 racer is rewarded handsomely for driving in circles? Johansson’s the one putting butts in seats, yet she stands to lose millions if Disney gets its way. If a studio is dopey enough to fork over tens of millions of dollars for an actress or actor to suit up, engage in a few bridging dialogue scenes, and let stunt doubles and computers handle most of the action, then the actor damn well better be smart enough to take them up on the offer. Will Dwayne Johnson follow suit, or will audiences put the Rock in a hard place?
Having twice exchanged E-Tickets for a ride on the Disneyland original, one thing stands out about each embarkation: the rote, flat-tongued patter of the Disney tour guides, both in their early twenties, that came from reading off a prepared script, 15 times a day, month in and month out, with no variation. If the mechanized alligator rapidly approaching the boat isn’t met by a starter’s pistol ready to put a blank cartridge through its mechanical brain, there’ll be one more “cast member” standing on the unemployment line.
We open in mid-legend: there’s a tree in the valley, one watered by the tears of the moon, that give it unsurpassed healing powers. As Skipper Frank Wolff, Johnson retains the Poopdeck Pappy cap, but replaces the riverboat redundancy of the Disneyland skipper with an ocean of puns, at least one of which needed fact-checking: the time is 1916, twenty-five years before the advent of concentrated orange juice, rendering inane Frank’s cornball quip about getting fired from an orange juice factory because he couldn’t concentrate. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) acquire Frank’s services to help find the magical tree. (Think The African Queen if Katherine Hepburn had to ward off computer generated marine life and Bogey had a 25-inch neck.) Add to the race a teutonic Prince (Jesse Plemons) sailing in the direction of the only man with first-hand knowledge of the requisite arrowhead: Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), the cursed Conquistador who took time away from his quest for El Dorado to appear here. There’s so much fat to be trimmed off the obscene running time they might just as well have called it Aquirre, the Rath of Bacon. (What? You think Johnson is the only one capable of stooping so low as to pun?)
With no story to speak of other than finding the arrowhead, the plot experiences more climaxes than an Indiana Jones festival. The quintet of screenwriters mercilessly make up legends as they go along, filling the hours with muddy ghosts, kielbasa snakes, and unrequited setups. Frank cautions all aboard not to make eye contact with the Encantado, the mythical river dolphin swimming alongside the boat, lest one be beset by eternal nightmares. Evil dolphins? Only in the movies, and then barely at that. No sooner is the shape-shifting cetacean introduced than it’s pulled off the screen quicker’n one can ask, “Is canned tuna really dolphin-safe?” And if the film is to be remembered as something other than a flop, it will go down in the annals of Disneyana as the first to feature an openly gay character. MacGregor’s sexuality is summed up in a brief dialogue exchange with Frank: “My interests lie happily elsewhere.” Perhaps in the sequel, God forbid there is one, we’ll fade out with Frank and MacGregor picking out furniture.
The ride offers more motivation and depth of character than the movie. A badly rendered CG jaguar and Frank’s insistence on calling Lily, “Pants” — sporting slacks at a time when women were only allowed to wear dresses is Disney’s feeble stab at feminism — are added to give the film a touch of Howard Hawks. In this company, the tribute is unclean. And knowing as much about boating as I do curing ham, isn’t a pier too shallow to accommodate a submarine? What does Jungle Cruise do in 127 minutes that couldn’t have been accomplished in the time it takes to enjoy the Disneyland attraction? Quoting from the gospel of Groucho, “Nothing, in its most violent form.” ●
Video on Demand and New Release Roundup
Final Account — We open with a quote from Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, that couldn’t be more pertinent if it were spoken today: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” I’ve seen many documentaries on the Holocaust, but never one told from the points-of-view of those who witnessed and/or participated in the atrocities of the Third Reich first hand. Many of those interviewed by director Luke Holland were children when Hitler seized power; their parents bought them their first brown shirts and black trousers from a Jewish store. They speak with nostalgic effusion of the “Jungvolk,” joined together to read from Mein Kampf while their older counterparts in the Hitler Youth would test their courage by visiting Jewish cemeteries at the “witching hour.” Some came from families of “convinced” Nazis. Others were influenced by their teachers, “party operatives” who made more of an impact on impressionable students than did their parents. One subject laughs off the slaughter of six million Jews with, “Maybe a million, no more.” As if that number were acceptable. It’s hard to watch the uncomfortable smiles that cross their faces at the end of each remembrance, but I couldn’t look away. Available on Amazon Prime. 2020. — S.M. ★★★★
The Last Mercenary — With Eastwood, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger lighting up screens in the ‘90s, one had very little time to devote to the mulletted likes of ancillary action heroes Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme. The bar was reset for the latter with the release of JCVD. WIth one foot extended high over head and tongue firmly planted in cheek, he starred as a broke, out-of-work movie star fighting to gain custody of his young daughter. Thirteen years later, and not much has changed, except this time it’s Archie (Samir Decazza), the son he hasn’t seen in 25 years who believes dad to be dead. JCVD stars as Richard Brumére, the elusive dog of war known as “The Mist.” He’s been out of touch for so long that his first contact with the outside world is via fax. The mistaken identity angle soon tires, as does our star trying to pull a Peter Sellers by disguising himself as everything from a swimming instructor to Archie’s girlfriend. Like the kid who found out that he was adopted from friends in the alley, Archie learns the truth from a slip of a cohort’s numb tongue. Don’t expect pathos to get in the way of this silly action comedy. Only on rare occasions does the rapid pace gridlock: outside the window, the police can’t be more than twenty-paces from the front door, yet it takes them a minute to finally break it down. Had I known to expect such a glorious third act from the star, I’d have paid closer attention to Bloodsport. David Charhon directs. Catch it on Netflix. 2021. — S.M. ★★★