So, I'm watching Gringo at the the theater today, and it's not as bad as some reviews had me thinking, but it has some structural issues, too much going on, dragging a bit much for a comedy that in other scenes is quite energetic. And, it wants to be about something, with the pharmaceutical angle and the drug cartel, but it keeps not quite managing. But, the thing I wanted to say about it that is definitely not the case with Romancing the Stone is that Gringo lets characters disappear for too long at times.
So, let's compare.
Not that any of you have seen (or will see) Gringo, or that a lot of you have even seen Romancing the Stone (but you should see the latter because it's amazing). (Actually, it occurs to me that I just might hashtag Gringo in the tweet link to this entry so maybe some people interested in that film will happen by. Hello Gringo fans. I will probably not be talking about Gringo beyond the next few sentences; I actually had a planned topic for this second day with Romancing the Stone, and I've got to segue into that sooner rather than later, or I will be here all day.
Characters we're following in Gringo:
- Harold (David Oyelowo)
- Richard (Joel Edgerton)
- Elaine (Charlize Theron)
- Sunny (Amanda Seyfried)
- Miles (Harry Treadaway)
- Celerino (Hernan Mendoza) & Angel (Yul Vazquez) for a bit, each
- Villegas (Carlos Corona)
- Ronaldo (Diego Catano)
- Ernesto (Rodrigo Corea)
- Jerry (Alan Ruck)
- Mitch (Sharlto Copley)
- Bonnie (Thandie Newton)
And, I'm sure I left someone out, and including a couple of those is generous because they are either only important for one segment in the film or only have a few key scenes.
The film has several duos (Richard and Elaine, Sunny and Miles, Ronaldo and Ernesto) that remain throughout, and mixes and matches some (Richard and Bonnie, Sunny and Harold, Harold and Mitch, Elaine and Jerry), but its big problem is that it leaves, for example, Ronaldo and Ernesto out of the film for a good 20 minutes or more in the middle of the film. The film tries to make things interesting by having Richard and Elaine have their own subplots going on when they are sort of the villains, but their subplots detract from the main plot more than they add to it.
On the other hand, Romancing the Stone:
- Joan (Kathleen Turner)
- Jack (Michael Douglas)
- Ralph (Danny Devito)
- Ira (Zack Norman)
- Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor)
- Zolo (Manuel Ojeda)
And, then it makes great use of Juan (Alfonso Arau) for an extended segment, but offers no expectation that he should remain after. He comes in, he advances the story, he leaves. Similarly, Gloria (Holland Taylor) only exists in the opening and (even shorter) closing, and we don't expect her to be anywhere else in the story. Gringo offers up characters that keep coming and going, but with no particular balance, and not always advancing the plot.
Like Gringo--and like many a film, really--Romancing the Stone has its duos (Joan and Jack, Ralph and Ira) and forms a couple important, but brief, trios (Joan and Jack and Ralph, Ralph and Ira and Elaine). Also of note: aside from Zolo, all of these main characters are outsiders in Colombia, with varying lengths of stays up to the present. So Colombia around Cartagena (as played by Mexico) is itself a sort of character...
Which I bring up because my sister Brooke, whose husband is Colombian and who has been to Colombia point out on Facebook this morning, "She should have just flown to Cartagena." Because, as I double checked with a quick Google search because that's how I do things, yes, Cartagena has its own airport now, had one in 1984, has had one since like the 20s. While the original script for Romancing the Stone was done before this, the Cartagena airport had even just been expanded in 1982.
And, I'm drifting through extra character information to get to how this film balances it's protagonists and antagonists in such a way as to play a fairly well-done romance off of the adventure plot, and I'm realizing as I go that there is something else worth talking about here.
(Side note nitpick: I just lost count, but Jack fires close to 20 shots with his shotgun, and nary an empty shell is seen flying from it, nor does he reload. On a pump-action shotgun with no obvious way to hold that many shells.)
The adventure here is driven by characters who have invaded Colombia for their various reasons. Elaine and her husband Eduardo (who we never meet) were in Colombia for... Business? There is mention of "antiquities" and "antiques"--one of Zolo's titles is "Minister of Antiquities" (he's also the Deputy Commander of the secret Police), Ralph and Ira have "stolen enough of these antique trinkets". Meanwhile, Jack is in Colombia catching exotic birds to sell elsewhere, because he wants a boat and "Birds seemed to be fast way to get [it] and a hell of a lot healthier than dealing in [marijuana]." The downed plane where Jack and Joan spend the night is full of drugs. Juan is a drug dealer, though he is local. but, where do those drugs go? Where do Jack's birds go? Where do Ira and Ralph's antiques go? There's this underlying theme here about the export of exotic goods out of Colombia, and all that gets brought into Colombia in the film is violence. A good portion of that is homegrown, obviously... And Zolo is the primary antagonist, the Grogan to Joan's Angelina.
But, consider the usual adage--that every villain is the hero of their own story. Who is Zolo from his own perspective? What is he after? Eduardo and Elaine come down to Colombia, grave robbers maybe, maybe just collectors buying rare objects off other people. Maybe Eduardo worked closely with Ralph and Ira, just three guys from New York picking apart the Colombian countryside for antiques and antiquities they could make a buck off. Meanwhile, remember Dr. Zolo has two titles: Minister of Antiquities and Deputy Commander of the Secret Police. The former sounds innocent enough even though villainous (often read: dystopian) governments like to call things "ministries". The latter is important in a locale that might be leaning into what we'd call a police state, perhaps a benevolent dictatorship. Not necessarily evil from the perspective of those living there. Maybe Zolo is a hero of his people. Only outsider thieves like Ralph and Ira and Eduardo (and maybe Elaine), and interlopers like Joan and Jack need fear him, really. Juan doesn't seem surprised that Zolo's men might come after him--though they only do so (here) once he has involved himself with Joan and Jack. Juan is, after all, a drug dealer.
(Side note: it is strange that Juan drives Pepe through his gate when there has been no indication that he knows Zolo is outside. Like that is just how Juan leaves home any time he goes for a drive.)
(Extra side note: Why is Ralph trying to steal the map when Joan on her way to deliver it to him and Ira? He only even knew Zolo was involved because he (Ralph) was following Joan as soon as she got to Colombia.)
(Extra extra side note: I figure Eduardo is a more take these holy stones and shove them in your shoulder bag kind of Indiana Jones than "this belongs in a museum" Indiana Jones, and Joan and Jack aren't much nicer to that map. Nor is Zolo, Minister of Antiquities, mind you, very nice to the map when he finally gets his hands on it.)
Zolo has his cause, however much we might not like it. He isn't just a mindless villain...
Until he is:
Notice, though, in terms of the story's structure, Zolo is no mindless villain until he has become an echo of the fictional Grogan, until he has gone mad with the pain of losing his hand and has stopped acting rationally.
And, I suppose I will have to watch Romancing the Stone again tomorrow, so I can talk about how all this balances out, and makes more believable, the romance.