When it comes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the only thing bigger than his beefy biceps may be his larger-than-life personality. The convivial main event wrestler turned box office movie star has an enormous presence and an infectious charm that has made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood. It just so happens that one of the few people who can match those qualities on screen is also his co-star in the upcoming big-budget blockbuster “Jungle Cruise”.
Emily Blunt doesn’t self-promote quite like Johnson (few do), but she has the same sparkling charisma and effervescent allure as her brawny screenmate. And while she’s easily the better dramatic actor of the two, Blunt also has a sharp wit and a playful energy that easily matches the high-profile Johnson. That’s part of what makes “Jungle Cruise” such an exciting summer movie experience. It features two inherently lovable talents bouncing off each other like an old-school screwball duo. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have Disney bankrolling it to the tune of $200 million.
I doubt this will be the only place you read this, but this newest theme park ride inspired movie from the House of Mouse plays very much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “The African Queen”. And if you look closer you can even see traces of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Romancing the Stone” and “Tomb Raider”. From the very start it’s clear what “Jungle Cruise” aspires to be and a ton of money has been poured into the big action set pieces and digital effects. But what keeps it alive is the cracking chemistry between its two wonderful leads.
Blunt plays the adventurous and slightly neurotic Dr. Lily Houghton, a botanist and all-around go-getter. In the film’s frisky opening few minutes we get a good dose of her resourcefulness and resolve as she butts heads with the backwards patriarchy of 1916 England. Lily believes she has discovered the location of the mystical Tree of Life, a find that could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. But it’s dismissed as nothing more than myth and superstition by the stuffy all-male science society in London who refuse to back her expedition. Undeterred, Lily ‘borrows’ a certain artifact from the society’s archives and heads to South America with her cowardly but ever-loyal brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).
Lily’s map points to the heart of the Amazon jungle as the location of the Tree of Life. But there’s one pretty big problem – she doesn’t have a boat. Enter Johnson who plays Frank Wolff, the captain of a beat-up riverboat he affectionately calls La Quila. Frank’s gig of taking gullible tourists on shoddy jungle cruises isn’t enough to pay off his debt to a crotchety port manager played by Paul Giamatti. So he jumps at the chance to take Lily and MacGregor up the river for a handsome fee.
As you can probably guess, their journey is filled with plenty of danger – wild animals, violent rapids, unwelcoming natives. What you probably wouldn’t guess is that the biggest danger they face is a hilariously deranged German blu-blood in a submarine named Prince Joachim (a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons). He too believes in the Tree of Life and will do anything to find it before Lily, even if it means resurrecting a pack of creepy cursed conquistadors led by the always enjoyable but woefully underused Édgar Ramírez.
“Jungle Cruise” is directed by frequent Liam Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra who sets out to create a fun old-fashioned adventure with an equal amount of swashbuckling and slapstick. The script (from the trio of Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) is silly and light-hearted, reminiscent of the late-1960’s pulp you would find at a Saturday afternoon matinee. You see it most in the film’s first (and best) half, and that throwback vibe kept a smile on my face. In the second half the story commits to unpacking its mythology which frankly isn’t all that interesting. And there are a couple of weirdly out-of-tune scenes that feel like they belong in an entirely different movie. But those things turn out to be small issues because the filmmakers never lose sight of their biggest strengths – Johnson and Blunt.
Of course this is a major Disney blockbuster meaning that we also get action and visual effects aplenty. There is a ton of CGI; a bit too much in a few scenes. But the bulk of the film looks tremendous and the jungle settings are both beautiful and foreboding. But regardless of the high-dollar paint and polish, it always comes back to Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Of course they nail the comedy just as you would expect (I laughed a lot). But the surprise comes in the amount of warmth and sincerity they generate between them. They somehow manage to make this boisterous over-the-top adventure feel unexpectedly intimate. “Jungle Cruise opens this Friday (July 30th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.