You know studio movies are in a rut when, amid endless Spider-Bat sequels, you find yourself longing for the likes of such escapist 1980s offerings as “Romancing the Stone” and “King Solomon’s Mines.” I can’t be the only one who’s been craving a good old-fashioned treasure hunt, where the leads throw sparks and the ladies’ makeup never smudges, no matter how close to the volcano they get. After a long stretch without such a big-screen Hollywood adventure movie (at least, not one without ties to a video game or theme park ride), “The Lost City” makes for welcome counter-programming.
The story was producer Seth Gordon’s idea, but credit siblings Adam and Aaron Nee (who tested the waters with their Mark Twain-inspired “Band of Robbers”) for sprucing up the formula, while Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum supply the chemistry. Bullock plays brainy romance novelist Loretta Sage, who’s lost her inspiration since the death of her husband, an archaeologist who might have been onto something. Her once-scorching potboilers barely simmer these days, and she’s seriously thinking of killing off Dash, the long-haired, Fabio-looking Lothario who graces the covers of all her books.
She can hardly stand Alan (Tatum), the dum-dum male model who embodies Dash, dismissing him as a mouth-breathing “body wash commercial.” But Alan’s a hit with the ladies at book-signing events, and lucky for her, he sorta-kinda likes Loretta — enough to go traipsing halfway across the Atlantic after she’s kidnapped by a wealthy weirdo named Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe). A billionaire with an insecurity complex, Fairfax is convinced that Loretta knows the location of the Crown of Fire, a long-lost diamond headdress described in her latest book, and he flies her to a remote tropical island to help him find it. Maybe then Daddy will love him.
Alan, who isn’t the brightest, has the wisdom to enlist an old acquaintance, lethal ex-Navy SEAL Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt), who typically works solo. But Alan insists on tagging along, and together these two dreamy dudes follow the signal from Loretta’s watch to the middle of the Atlantic, where Abigail has located the “Lost City of D.” To Alan’s chagrin, Loretta seems a lot more interested in Jack once she’s rescued, although the adventure’s only just begun. (Pitt, who provides the kind of scene-stealing cameo Tatum did in last summer’s “Free Guy,” doesn’t stick around for long.)
Free from captivity but still stuck on the island, Loretta realizes that maybe she could figure out where the Crown of Fire is hidden. Pursued by Abigail’s henchmen, she and Alan make their way through the jungle, navigating nearly all the usual pitfalls of the genre — minus bone-in-the-nose natives. “The Lost City” evokes movies that can seem outrageously insensitive when revisited today, while avoiding the most wince-inducing clichés. One reason I’ve been craving a fresh “Romancing the Stone”-like movie is that I happened to revisit the original during the early days of COVID and winced at the overtly racist stereotypes (not to mention the unconvincing Mexico-as-South-America locations).
“The Lost City” was shot in the Dominican Republic, and though there’s a whole lot of CG involved, it’s still great to see movie stars running around real jungles, especially after being cooped up indoors for two years. Even at the movie’s masks-on SXSW Film Festival premiere, “The Lost City” was a breath of fresh air: the kind of breezy two-hour getaway that doesn’t take itself too seriously, delivering screwball banter between Bullock and Tatum — a guilty-pleasure treasure hunt that pretends to be more progressive than it really is by alternating between who’s saving whom.
Loretta Sage is no feminist icon — she runs around the island in high heels and a glittering fuchsia jumpsuit — but at least the movie lets her keep her clothes on, whereas Alan’s constantly losing his. Ditching the usual bimbo-in-peril routine of movies like “Six Days, Seven Nights,” the movie focuses more on Dash’s cleavage than it does hers, and there’s even a gratuitous leech-removal scene that reveals more of the actor than “Magic Mike” did. Tatum knows what his fans want, and so does Bullock, leaning into the kind of physical comedy that’s been her forte since “Miss Congeniality.” A bit in which she’s wheelbarrowed through the jungle while strapped to a chair, as pyrotechnics go off around her, revives the goofiness factor that’s been missing from CG-dominated action movies.
“The Lost City” won’t be nominated for any Oscars, but it repeats what Spielberg and Lucas did for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” mining a century-old genre for inspiration and polishing those tropes for a new generation. A subplot involving Loretta’s publisher Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) makes room for a few people of color (including Oscar Nuñez as an offbeat accomplice), and it’s a nice surprise to see Radcliffe playing against type, even if the movie doesn’t quite know how to wrap up the supporting characters’ stories. (A bonus scene tucked into the end credits essentially invalidates one of the movie’s best gags.) The result can feel a little rickety in places, but the Nee brothers — who share screenplay credit with Oren Uziel and Dana Fox — have punched it up with off-color jokes, looped over moments when the characters’ mouths are off-camera. In this and myriad other ways, “The Lost City” proves they do in fact make ’em like they used to.