Thank God for third acts.
The last act in JUNGLE CRUISE, the new adventure film opening Friday that’s based on the classic Disneyland ride, almost saves the overwrought and frenetic film that went on before it for 90 minutes. With half an hour left, the editing finally stops being manic, the action choreography becomes clear and stars Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson have an opportunity to catch their breath and quietly connect with each other. Up until then, the estimable Blunt seemed adrift in a sea of racket, hokey set pieces, and the overly macho posturing of her co-star. Is that last act enough to redeem the film? No, but at least it ends on a high note.
JUNGLE CRUISE would like to be the new INDIANA JONES, but it actually has more in common with 1999’s THE MUMMY. In that period-piece adventure, a headstrong, bookish woman (Rachel Weisz) employed a swaggering hunk (Brendan Fraser) to help guide her and her cowardly brother (John Hannah) to the whereabouts of a historical treasure. Blunt, Johnson, and Jack Whitehall play the exact same type of roles here, only not as well. This film also borrows generously from other, better adventure hits like AVATAR, THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and ROMANCING THE STONE too. In fact, a glowing tree that holds the key to the treasure in this film seems so close to James Cameron’s tree of life in AVATAR, it comes across like a lazy rip-off.
Too much of the story feels lazily conceived as well. Skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) doesn’t take kindly to his client Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) bossing him around and telling him where to steer his modest little tug, as wholly expected. Their bickering and forced banter lack cleverness, as well as any semblance of romantic chemistry. (These two are no Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner). He teases her, calling her “Pants” due to her predilection for trousers, and she refers to him as “Skippy” to demean his seafaring machismo, but that’s about as witty as their wordplay gets. Giving Johnson dozens of bad puns to deliver and making Whitehall’s stuffy wardrobe the butt of jokes doesn’t help matters either.
What the film lacks in wit, it makes up for in one action sequence after another, but none of them land with genuine distinction. Sure, the boat is placed in danger numerous times, but Skippy acts so nonchalantly about most of the precarious situations, it robs them of any power. If a character in the film can’t get worked up, why expect the audience to invest in the plight?
Thankfully, Jesse Plemons is on hand as the villain, an aristocratic WWI German, hoping to find the hidden treasure himself. The gifted actor brings the funny and the menace to the role and steals every scene he’s in. The same cannot be said about Paul Giamatti, misused in a glorified cameo of a role, not to mention Edgar Ramirez, who plays the spirit of another foil, a vengeful conquistador. The acclaimed actor is stuck in a part that buries him under gobs of makeup and all sorts of distractingly ugly CGI effects.
There are far too many special effects throughout, most of them not nearly as convincing as they should be considering the budget. The SFX team also was directed to airbrush Blunt’s face throughout, attempting to give her a younger and dewier glow, but it only serves to draw attention to how sexist and ridiculous such uses of technology can be. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra pushes almost every moment to the hilt, and when everything is so loud and bombastic, it just becomes noise. The filmmaker shoves far too many snakes straight at the camera like he’s making a cheesy 3D horror film from the 1950s. Collet-Serra likes squishy bugs a lot too, not to mention the sight of sick people vomiting. In one scene, no fewer than three characters barf on the tug boat’s floor. Collet-Serra’s helming of the frightener ORPHAN and thriller UNKNOWN were sly works, but here he’s playing everything to the cheap seats.
JUNGLE CRUISE is another big-screen effort that pales in comparison to the clever and involving original MCU programming that’s been streaming on Disney + this past year. Of course, maybe it’s too much to expect greatness from an adaptation that starts from a 20-minute theme park ride, but if the entertainment company is going to go there, then it needs to do better. And for heaven’s sake, leave Miss Blunt’s face alone.