This review comes out of the 2022 media expo SXSW, where Polygon sent writers to look at the next wave of upcoming releases.
The adventure-romance genre has stood the test of time for a reason. At its best, it offers exotic, remote locations that don’t often show up in movies; a beautiful couple with good chemistry; and a compelling adventure with danger, a love story, and usually a solid sense of humor. After 1951’s The African Queen set the standard for adventure-romances by uniting its era’s biggest stars on a high-stakes trip, and 1984’s Romancing the Stone parlayed the same concept into a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, many filmmakers have tried to replicate the formula. But they’ve found it surprisingly difficult to do well.
While the plot of The Lost City makes it sound notably similar to Romancing the Stone, it’s actually most successful as a successor to The Mummy, a film that found the comedy in the adventure-romance genre and inspired many competitors that failed to live up to it. The Lost City doesn’t have the most exciting or novel plot, and it doesn’t push action filmmaking forward. But it does feature two of the moment’s greatest movie stars coming in at the top of their rom-com game, mixing adventure and love. Filmmaking brothers Aaron Nee and Adam Nee (The Last Romantic, Band of Robbers) avoid many of the stereotypes these movies normally fall into, and along the way, they remind viewers that Channing Tatum is a perfect himbo, and Sandra Bullock is a long-standing rom-com queen.
Bullock stars as Loretta Sage, a former archaeologist who has discovered that people aren’t really interested in books about lost civilizations, but they will certainly read a romance novel featuring a hot adventurer going to faraway places. She’s channeled her knowledge into writing those novels, but after years of filling books with the same double-entendre jokes comparing lava flowing down a volcano to different fluids flowing down her fictional hero’s “volcano,” she’s become bitter and dissatisfied — especially over her sweet but dimwitted cover model Alan (Tatum), who seems to think he really is the Fabio-inspired star of her books.
After a string of bestsellers, Loretta wants nothing more than to stop writing novels, even if that means ruining her new book tour before it begins. She doesn’t much care about derailing it, since everyone seems to be there just to see Alan shirtless, not to hear about a book. But Loretta can’t drop her career so easily, because she gets abducted by Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), a rich guy who really wants her to know both that “Abigail” is a gender-neutral name, and that the lost city from Loretta’s new book is real and that it’s hiding an immense treasure. He wants her to translate some ancient writing and help him secure the treasure before a volcano eruption buries the whole thing. If he can use the discovery to finally get one up on his more successful brother, all the better.
Yes, the story is a not-so-hidden repeat of Romancing the Stone, with a novelist getting sucked into a treasure hunt in the Latin American jungle. But the cast makes The Lost City stand out. Bullock channels her Miss Congeniality comedic chops for a slapstick performance that shows she isn’t afraid of looking silly. Tatum shows why he’s one of this decade’s biggest movie stars: He excels at exploiting his looks and charisma for comedy. It’s worth watching the movie just to see him utterly fail at being an action hero, like when Loretta throws him a gun and he ducks instead of catching it.
Then there’s the scene-stealing supporting cast, including Brad Pitt channeling his cool, carefree character from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to play a true action-adventure hero with a magical head of hair. And of course, a good adventure film needs a good villain, and Radcliffe makes a welcome return to blockbusters with a performance that feels like he did a bump of Adderall in the bathroom before every scene.
There’s no question that the Nee brothers and their screenwriting partners Oren Uziel (of the 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot) and Dana Fox (a writer on Cruella) consider the movie’s laughs more important than its big stunts. Taking some cues from The Mummy, they’ve clearly decided that they have a winning combination in a big, dumb action hero who looks just as cool beating up a bad guy as he does falling off a motorcycle like a doofus. And placing him next to a capable, smart woman who doesn’t really need saving can create some sparkling chemistry. Not since Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz has a movie like this exuded so much steamy hot chemistry. The Lost City gets a lot of mileage out of placing Bullock and Tatum in awkward but funny situations, as when she has to pull leeches off his butt.
As a treasure-hunting adventure film, like Jungle Cruise, National Treasure, or the recent Uncharted, The Lost City hits the usual notes: your standard puzzle-solving, your codexes, your crawling through very narrow cave openings, and so forth. But thankfully, the creators don’t try to cram in elaborate mechanisms that are hundreds of years old yet have never been found before, like Uncharted does. They also don’t go the Indiana Jones route, with artifacts that are actually magical.
Instead, they offer up a grounded, clever roadmap to a supposed treasure that is simply blown out of proportion by unsuspecting white people who expect a big El Dorado-esque secret at the end of the journey. A big problem with adventure films like this is that they focus on stereotypes and on exoticizing other cultures until they’re unrecognizable. The Lost City dodges the issue by mostly ignoring the lore around the treasure in favor of the comedic hijinks between its leads, and by treating the local population with care. When Loretta and Alan arrive in a small town, there’s no special local festival with unusual traditions, no grand welcome for the white foreigners — just a town square where people hang out on a Saturday evening.
But while the filmmakers try to mitigate their use of a Latin American island as an exotic setting by having one of the henchmen be a local with a connection to the culture and the treasure, he’s somewhat left behind by the plot. And The Lost City does include one unfortunate stereotype: a sex-crazed Latin-lover character, who’s played for laughs without adding anything to the story.
In this and other ways, the team behind The Lost City isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel on the adventure-romance trope, so much as it’s trying to slightly update and revive a subgenre that’s faded into the background of cinema, along with theatrical rom-coms and big ensemble comedy movies. The Lost City is capable enough to step into the void and take advantage of the way films like The Mummy have become less common, but it isn’t so striking or memorable that it’s likely to usher in a new era of treasure-hunting capers. Still, Bullock and Tatum’s chemistry is a reminder of why this type of film used to occupy as much space as it did in theaters. It’s an old-school kind of screwball comedy, seemingly designed to ask a single question: Are filmgoers ready and excited for another Mummy yet?
The Lost City opens in theaters on March 24.